NEW YORK — Republican candidate for governor Carl Paladino said he would transform some New York prisons into dormitories for welfare recipients, where they could work in state-sponsored jobs, get employment training and take lessons in "personal hygiene."
Paladino, a wealthy Buffalo real estate developer popular with many tea party activists, isn't saying the state should jail poor people: The program would be voluntary.
But the suggestion that poor families would be better off in remote institutions, rather than among friends and family in their own neighborhoods, struck some anti-poverty activists as insulting.
Paladino is competing for the Republican nomination with former U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio. The primary is Sept. 14.
Paladino first described the idea in June at a meeting of The Journal News of White Plains and spoke about it again this week with The Associated Press.
Throughout his campaign, Paladino has criticized New York's rich menu of social service benefits, which he says encourages illegal immigrants and needy people to live in the state. He has promised a 20 percent reduction in the state budget and a 10 percent income tax cut if elected.
Asked at the meeting how he would achieve those savings, Paladino laid out several plans that included converting underused state prisons into centers that would house welfare recipients. There, they would do work for the state – "military service, in some cases park service, in other cases public works service," he said – while prison guards would be retrained to work as counselors.
"Instead of handing out the welfare checks, we'll teach people how to earn their check. We'll teach them personal hygiene ... the personal things they don't get when they come from dysfunctional homes," Paladino said.
New York, like other states, receives a federal block grant to provide cash and other forms of welfare to very low-income residents. Federal law already requires welfare recipients to do some form of work to receive benefits.
New York's welfare rolls have grown slightly during the recession, while food stamp eligibility has almost doubled, according to the state.
Paladino told The Associated Press the dormitory living would be voluntary, not mandatory, and would give welfare recipients an opportunity to take public, state-sponsored jobs far from home.
"These are beautiful properties with basketball courts, bathroom facilities, toilet facilities. Many young people would love to get the hell out of cities," Paladino he said.
He also defended his hygiene remarks, saying he had trained inner-city troops in the Army and knows their needs.
"You have to teach them basic things – taking care of themselves, physical fitness. In their dysfunctional environment, they never learned these things," he said.
Ketny Jean-Francois, a former welfare recipient and a New York City advocate for low-income people, said Paladino's idea shocked her.
"Being poor is not a crime," she said. "People are on welfare for many reasons ... Is he saying people are poor because they don't have any hygiene or any skills?"
A Lazio spokesman didn't immediately return a message.
Paladino said he based his ideas on the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program that paid young unemployed men during the Great Depression to plant trees, build roads and develop parks.
Paladino said he would open the program both to long-term welfare recipients and to people who had lost their jobs during the recession. He said that he didn't know how he would pay for it but that prisons could be consolidated to make room.
Associated Press writer Marc Beja contributed to this report.