The inmate population at the Cheshire Correctional Institution has dropped below 1,000, part of a statewide decline in the number of incarcerated individuals.
Andrius Banevicius, spokesman for the state Department of Correction, said the facility housed 998 inmates as of Monday, a 13.3% decline over the previous year.
“The decline in the Cheshire CI incarcerated population mirrors the rest of the state’s prisons, which can essentially be attributed to several key factors,” he said in an email.
Those factors include “a concerted effort on the part of the Department of Correction to expedite those eligible for discretionary releases,” and a “considerable drop” in the number of arrests made during the coronavirus pandemic.
Other factors include an expansion in mental health, substance abuse treatment and other diversion programs, which provide alternatives to incarceration, Banevicius said.
Prison populations have been declining since at least 2016, when the Cheshire facility housed around 1,374 inmates, according to state records. The prison remains the second largest in the state, behind MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, which is the largest facility in New England.
Cheshire is also home to the Manson Youth Institution, a high-security facility that houses inmates under the age of 21, which has seen its population hovering around 250 over the past few years, down from a high of around 600 in 2016.
Town Manager Sean Kimball said the short-term impact on the town is minimal, though prolonged population declines at the facility could reduce population-based funding that Cheshire receives, such as Education Cost Sharing grants. The U.S. Census Bureau counts the facility in which inmates are housed as their residence, meaning every inmate released who returns to a home in another town counts as one fewer Cheshire resident for state and federal funding purposes.
Thus far, Kimball said the impact of the declining population at the Cheshire facility hasn’t been reflected in the town’s state grants, though.
“Mostly, our ECS amounts have been relatively flat — stable in recent years,” he said.
Kimball said a bill currently before the state legislature, S.B. 753, would take steps toward counting prison inmates at their last known residence prior to incarceration.
“It’s something that we watch very carefully, because it could have financial impacts on the town,” he said.
The town is also pushing the state to fully fund municipal payments in lieu of taxes, which are meant to compensate towns for the value of tax-exempt state-owned property, Kimball said. That amounts to the town receiving around $1.3 million rather than the $4.8 million it’s supposed to receive under the PILOT formula.
“As it stands, the state doesn’t pay the town in terms of payment in lieu of taxes at the full rate that they’re supposed to for the prison property. So we currently receive only 27 percent of the revenue that we’re supposed to,” he said.
Another impact the town could see is with people who work at the facility.
“It’s something that we’re monitoring very carefully. There’s certainly folks in the community that work in the prison and that could be a potential impact,” he said. “Until we see their projections on their future prison populations … I think it’s hard to project just what that impact would be.”
Cheshire Correctional currently employs 428 workers while Manson employs 283, according to the DOC.
The state is planning to close three prisons over the next year, which would result in inmates being transferred to other facilities, Banevicius said. Thus far, the only announced closure is Northern Correctional Institution in Somers.
“At this point in the planning process, it is not certain how many incarcerated individuals might be transferred to the Cheshire prison. However, thanks to the decreased prison population, the remaining facilities have space to absorb additional individuals,” he said.
The closing of the three prisons is slated to coincide with an expected wave of state employees retiring, so the department hopes to be able to avoid layoffs.
“As much as possible, staff members that retire will be replaced with staff from facilities slated for closure. It is anticipated that there will be a large number of state employees retiring by July 1, 2022, when changes to state employee retirement benefits take effect. The goal is to avoid any layoffs if at all possible,” Banevicius said.