New York Closed Six Prisons and Saved $142 Million. Here’s How That Money Should Be Spent.

Sam McCann Senior Writer
Apr 21, 2022
A correctional officer watches as people sit for lunch at the Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Mineville, New York. Photo by AP Photo/Mike Groll.

Last month, New York closed six upstate prisons, each of which had been operating well under capacity. Collectively, the now-closed facilities filled just 43.7 percent of their available beds. They were also overstaffed: more than 1,700 people worked at the six facilities, which detained more than 1,400 people. Statewide, the the ratio of incarcerated people to corrections officers was 2.7 to 1 in 2018. As of 2016, that number sat at 3.9 to 1 nationwide.

New York’s prison population has dropped 56 percent since 1999. By dismantling the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which mandated prison time for certain drug offenses and fueled racial disparity in prisons, lawmakers curbed incarceration at no cost to public safety. Reforms that included diverting people to treatment rather than prison made New Yorkers safer.

That fact should guide lawmakers’ thinking as they decide how to spend the financial windfall created by these closures. Shuttering the six prisons will save $142 million a year, giving New York an opportunity to expand policies that build public safety. Here’s what that could look like.

Expand community-based pretrial services

More than 14,500 New Yorkers are detained pretrial each day, but investment in pretrial services would provide support for the safe release of many of them. Qualified service providers can address the housing, health, and treatment needs of people awaiting their day in court. In doing so, they ensure their clients make their court dates and mitigate the risk of rearrest. The San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project shows just how effective these programs can be: its clients make 92 percent of court appearances, and 94 percent of its participants were not rearrested within the first year after release.

New York City currently spends $72 million annually on pretrial services, yet the new state budget includes just $15 million guaranteed for the 57 counties outside the city. Dramatically increasing that funding—at least to parity with the city’s budget—will accelerate the state’s ability to provide these critical services to all New Yorkers.

That would be money well-spent, as a new Arnold Ventures report found that detaining people for longer than 23 hours before their trials increases their likelihood of rearrest.

Invest in treatment for substance use conditions

Nationwide, 63 percent of people in jail meet criteria for drug dependence or abuse, and New York has a burgeoning need for behavioral health and social services. Yet the criminal legal system funnels people with substance use disorders toward incarceration rather than treatment.

New York can flip that dynamic by simultaneously closing prisons and investing in medication-assisted treatment (MAT), which combines behavioral interventions and medication. MAT is considered the gold standard of care for opioid use disorders, with a track record of decreasing opioid use long-term while simultaneously reducing criminal activity. A $9.5 million program is projected to save 1,500 lives.

Make phone calls free for incarcerated New Yorkers

Charges on phone calls for incarcerated people are a punitive poverty tax, and efforts to limit communication inside facilities damage family and community connections. The average cost of a 15 minute in-state call from a New York jail in 2018 was $7.79. Legislators are pushing a bill that would end the practice and help sustain relationships for incarcerated people. Its passage would bolster the ties between incarcerated people and their loved ones during incarceration, which in turn would increase the likelihood of support and stability upon release. Those connections can be the difference between successful reentry and a return to jail or prison.

Invest in sustainable solutions to public safety

New York listened to the data when it dismantled the Rockefeller Drug Laws, successfully driving down its incarceration rate while reducing crime. However, since the start of the pandemic, crime is on the rise, and the state must look to the data once again to build public safety. That means using some of the $142 million it saves closing these prisons to expand tools proven to build public safety long-term—and supplementing those funds with additional state dollars. That includes:

  • Dedicating resources to supportive housing. Supportive housing combines affordable, permanent homes with voluntary services. But those apartments are often difficult to access. Expanded access to supportive housing would reduce incarceration, homeless shelter stays, and emergency department use while increasing housing stability for people leaving jail or prison. And it would save the state money: a supportive housing bed and wraparound services cost just $42,000 per year, compared to $550,000 a year for a bed on Rikers.

    The model has been proven effective in jurisdictions across the country. A supportive housing program serving unhoused people in Denver reduced the time participants spent in jail by nearly 75 percent compared to similarly situated non-participants. A supportive housing program in Illinois decreased the average per-person jail costs by 68 percent.
  • Incentivizing counties to invest in treatment services locally. New York incarcerates more people with severe mental illnesses than it hospitalizes. To address this, it should match funds that counties divert from jails to behavioral health and social supports. These programs will ultimately save money on the local and state level by further reducing the reliance on jails and prisons while building public safety. Brooklyn Mental Health Court reduced the likelihood of rearrest for participants by 46 percent.

These prison closures are the fruit of data-driven policy: by implementing smart reforms, lawmakers reduced New York’s dependence on incarceration and freed up taxpayer money. Critically, the state did so while keeping people safe. It should take the lessons from this success seriously. New Yorkers now have a chance to reinvest these savings to build affirmative, sustainable public safety.