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Closing prisons without plans leaves eyesores, headaches

Joe Mahoney, CNHI State Reporter
Posted 8/20/22

What was once the site of the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility is now home to a film studio on 49 acres of Staten Island.

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Closing prisons without plans leaves eyesores, headaches


ALBANY — What was once the site of the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility is now home to a film studio on 49 acres of Staten Island.

In the Orange County town of Warwick, the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility has been transformed into a business park.

But in numerous other locations across the state, particularly in rural areas well off the beaten track, shuttered state prisons have found few takers. Lawmakers who have such former facilities in their district say they have been left to crumble if the state can’t find a buyer willing to develop the properties.

While the Hochul administration is hoping a new commission comes up with ideas for reusing the closed prisons, a new national report issued by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, suggests states take a “community reinvestment approach.”

Embracing that vision could result in public investment in new schools, community centers,and healthcare facilities that would benefit communities whose residents were impacted by unusually high rates of incarceration, according to the report’s authors.

The report also warns state governments need to be cautious about the possibility they will overestimate any cost savings expected to flow from shutting down prisons.

They might also encounter land reuse challenges, with the report highlighting the fact that hundreds of state and federal prisons were found to have been built near sites awaiting cleanup of toxic contaminants.

But the main thrust of the report is that prison closures can allow states to embrace strategies that emphasize opportunity instead of punishment as a guiding theme in public safety.

In New York, lawmakers representing communities that have been impacted by a string of prison closures said the experiences make it clear planning for re-use of a facility targeted for closure should begin long before the prison system turns off the lights at those complexes.

The lack of detailed advanced planning for the future of the mothballed facilities is at least partly responsible for the blight that ensued, they said.

“They just closed prisons without giving it a thought,” said state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury. “They just walked away from a multi-million-dollar taxpayer asset with no plan for what is to come next. If you just let them go in the winter in the North Country, with no heat, no lighting, no security, you’re going to have problems.”

Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, a retired state corrections officer, sponsored a bill several years ago that would have required state officials to guide the redevelopment of properties the state was decommissioning. The bill was bottled up at the statehouse.

Jones said former prisons that were dormant when he took office in January 2017 remain dormant today.

More than 20 prisons have been closed in New York over the past 15 years, most of them by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Six prisons were ordered closed this year by Hochul, who was Cuomo’s lieutenant governor when he resigned last August.

“Quite frankly, nothing has been done,” Jones said. “My feeling is the state owes it to the communities where the prisons were located to have a plan. They have become eyesores and blighted buildings in our towns.”

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, said the administration of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014 auctioned off what was once the Camp Summit shock incarceration facility, getting “pennies on the dollar” in return for an investment of tens of millions of dollars by state taxpayers.

Attempts have been made to locate a long-term drug and alcohol treatment center at the site, but those plans have sputtered and it remains unclear if they will ever come to fruition, Tague said.

“When a new owner comes in, the person has to worry about zoning laws and planning boards, and it slows things down,” said Tague. He suggested it would make far more sense for state officials to work out as many of those issues beforehand, as soon as they plan on moving ahead with a closure, so when a facility is shut down, a community won’t be left with what could become an unsolvable puzzle.

Hochul, a Democrat running to keep her job in the 2022 election, has assembled a commission that is now “reimagining” the fate of closed prisons. A full report from that panel is expected by year’s end, according to Empire State Development, a state public authority controlled by Hochul.

Kristin Devoe, an ESD spokeswoman, said in an email that members of the commission have met twice and have visited 11 sites, inviting local officials into their discussions along the way.

According to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the total state prison population stood at 30,895 as of Aug. 1. That is a decline of more than 57% since the population peaked in 1999.

The state agency reports that it has eliminated more than 13,000 prison beds and closed 24 correctional facilities since 2011, resulting in annual savings of about $442 million.


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