MANCHESTER – When I began this journey over a year ago, advocating for reform of our prisons, I never dreamed that so arcane and bizarre a subject could become a source of amusement. Despite being a former legislator, I had forgotten the inherent lack of courage on the part of legislators, driving their propensity to tweak rather than replace or repair broken systems.

Having moved from prison chaplain to self-declared watchdog of corrections, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t burst out laughing over the foolishness that evolves from this broken mess. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” has morphed into “Now that it’s broke, poke it with a stick to see if it squawks!”

Anybody want to buy a prison? New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has several for sale. A great Jan. 27 piece by NPR titled “N.Y. governor threatens to mothball more prisons” has put the U.S. prison culture and its satellite industries squarely in the cross hairs.

Faced with an $11 billion budget deficit, Gov. Cuomo promised and delivered on closing Lyon Mountain Prison, positioned just south of the U.S.-Canada border, in a region already hit with over 10 percent unemployment. The driver behind this move was a plummeting drop in the crime rate over the past 10 years, a 20 percent drop in incarceration and new legislation to ease drug sentencing in favor of drug rehabilitation and mental health counseling.

The article leads with an aerial photo of a prison known as Camp Gabriels in Brighton, N.Y., closed in 2009. This is not a camp to which you might have liked to send your child for the summer, but it may well have been a camp you might have wanted to send someone else’s child in order to retain jobs in the community.

As it stands — barely, in fact — Camp Gabriels is falling apart. There are no takers at any price. Even its 92 acres are tainted by prospective demolition costs compounded by black mold.

Lyon Mountain, a former mining town, is in the state Senate district represented by Sen. Betty Little. The district boasts 13 state prisons. “We built an economy around these facilities,” she said, “and they should stay right where they are. There’s absolutely nothing to replace those jobs.”

Lyon Mountain resident Karen Linney promised a fight to keep the prison open. “There’s no jobs anywhere,” she said.

Prison guard Chad Stickney of Ogdensburg, N.Y., fights to keep the city’s two state prisons open. “We need to unite as every jail above Albany,” he says, “because that is where all these jail closures are coming from. … We need to rally as a whole.” Translation: “Unite and fight Albany!”

That is not to say, of course, that some of those jobs were not humanitarian in nature.

Gov. Cuomo answered these responses with, “An incarceration program is not an employment program. If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs. Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs,” a novel suggestion in this dream world of politicians promising to create jobs while never having personally met a payroll.

Lyon Mountain Prison closed in January despite the clamor.

Gov. LePage has flirted with locating a private prison in Milo, where a private gambling center is currently under construction, ostensibly to create further demand for the prison. It occurs that one of the major problems with private prisons is not that they are less abusive than government prisons, that being nearly impossible, but that they are under government contract, making their closing legally difficult without high exposure to compensatory damages.

As economic development initiatives turn toward such growth industries as corrections and gambling, you have to wonder if we have plumbed the depths of inanity. Should we legalize prostitution to create jobs laundering linens, arranging flowers and treating sexually transmitted diseases? How about methadone dens?

To the people of New York state who have pinned their economic hopes on the ever-increasing wages of sin, take a lesson from 50 years of mill closings in New England: The way to create jobs is to bring the community together in creative mode, as they were forced to do recently when the paper mill in Millinocket closed.

Let’s hear less about government job-creating dreams and nightmares and more about entrepreneurship encouraged by public/private partnerships.

The nanny state has fully matured when its economy boasts corrections as its fastest-growing industry.

– Special to the Press Herald