Criminal justice advocates applaud Southport prison closure, others worry

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Southport Correctional Facility, located in Chemung County, will close in March 2022. (Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo/WSKG)

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) announced last week that it will close six prisons statewide, including the Southport Correctional Facility near Elmira.

Criminal justice advocates have been glad to see Southport near its close. It was built in the 1980s as the state’s first supermax security prison. But some local leaders are worried about potential economic consequences.

Tyrrell Muhammad was incarcerated at Southport from 1991-92 during what he called the “tough-on-crime” era.

“That’s a time of no more,” said Muhammad, who is senior advocate at the Correctional Association of New York. “Prison populations are going down, decarceration is the mantra and what everyone is focusing on.”

Today, there is not as much use for Southport, Muhammad said. While the prison can hold 441 inmates, there are currently only 275 people incarcerated there.

An end to isolation

Southport is a Special Housing Unit Facility, meaning nearly all of its cells are intended for solitary confinement. Aside from a cadre of inmates who provide services like cooking, people incarcerated there are isolated and allowed only one or two hours a day out of their cells.

Research has long documented the serious psychological, as well as physical, effects of solitary confinement. People sometimes experience hallucinations, panic attacks and paranoia while isolated for long periods; or hypersensitivity and heart damage after release.

“It’s a fight for your sanity, believe me,” said Muhammad, who was held in solitary confinement while incarcerated. “No one escapes those conditions unharmed.”

But solitary confinement is on its way out in New York. Earlier this year, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act into law. When it goes into effect on March 31, it will limit how long a person can be in solitary to 15 days.

The legislation also prohibits the confinement of individuals age 21 and younger, 55 and older, living with disability and pregnant or caring for children in a facility.

It also expands the definition of solitary confinement to any form of cell confinement where a person is held for more than 17 hours a day.

Scott Paltrowitz, an organizer with the HALT Solitary Coalition, said closing Southport is one step toward ending solitary confinement, but more needs to be done.

“It’s now time for the state to move away from using solitary and instead use alternative interventions that are not only more humane, but more effective for addressing safety issues,” Paltrowitz said.

The legislation signed by Cuomo creates alternative measures that are intended to be rehabilitative, including residential rehabilitation units inside prisons and county jails.

In a statement, DOCCS said the HALT law, along with other recent criminal justice reforms that have reduced the prison population, were factors in the department’s decision to close prisons statewide.

New York’s other supermax prison, Upstate Correctional Facility, located near the Canadian border, remains open.

Legislators fear prison staff will lose jobs, or leave

But some politicians have feared what losing Southport, located in Chemung County, will do to its workforce.

Local leaders in neighboring Schuyler County fear what economic consequences the closure will have. The county legislature passed a resolution opposing the decision to close Southport, which they wrote employs Schuyler residents.

Legislature Chairman Carl Blowers, a Republican, said local governments near Southport were given no warning it would be slated to close.

“I mean we had no way to plan, no way to present a case,” Blowers said.

He wished there had been a chance for public comment.

“We would’ve judged from that information as opposed to finding it in your newspaper one morning when we woke up,” Blowers said.

Had he known, Blowers said he would have leveraged the situation to attract jobs to Schuyler County, since there could be more residents looking for work. Just 18,000 residents live in the rural county.

The New York Department of Corrections said it does not anticipate any layoffs from the closure of the prisons, and they will offer voluntary transfers to prison staff. Some legislators, however, fear that could mean families leaving Schuyler County for those positions.

The resolution from Schuyler County accused the state of being abrupt and secretive in its decision to close Southport, and called for the state to reconsider its decision.

But to Muhammad, closing the prison means a chance to repurpose it and put an end to what he said were archaic, punitive institutions.

“Those prisons can be used for something other than being prisons, believe me,” Muhammad said. “The private sector is ready to do something different.”

DOCCS said it will work to facilitate its reuse. Southport and others are expected to close on March 10, 2022.