New York State Closes 14 Prisons Amid Decline in Crime Rates

By Christopher Zoukis

Since 2009, New York State has closed 14 prisons in an effort to reduce costs and better utilize correctional resources as its prison population has decreased. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.1; April 2009, p.1].

While it’s unusual that a prison system would opt to close facilities, the backside of the story is how the shuttered prisons are being put to use. Of the 14 closed facilities, two are now being used to help rather than incarcerate people: Bayview Correctional Facility and Fulton Correctional Facility. More importantly, the prison closures have coincided with a decline in crime rates – indicating it’s possible to downsize prisons without incurring an increase in crime.

Bayview Correctional Facility, a 153-bed women’s prison, closed in 2013. Since then it has been acquired by the NoVo Foundation, supported by musician Peter Andrew Buffett and his wife Jennifer, and is being converted into the Women’s Building – a location where women and girls can go for training, office and conference space, and events related to women’s rights. It also plans to offer child-care services.

This transformation is possible due to a 50-year lease and a partnership with the Goren Group, a women’s real estate firm. In July 2016, the NoVo Foundation and Goren Group announced that architectural company Deborah Berke Partners had been selected to renovate and convert the former prison.

In the words of Pamela Shifman, NoVo’s executive director, “[t]his very building stands for the possibilities when women’s potential is nurtured and not locked away.” Sharon Richardson, founder of Reentry Rocks and a former Bayview prisoner, agreed, saying, “[n]ow it stands for freedom!” The Women’s Building is slated to open in 2019 or 2020.

The Fulton Correctional Facility has a similar projected future. On January 29, 2015, Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, handed the keys to the prison to Osborne Association president and CEO Elizabeth Gaynes. The Osborne Association plans to convert the former prison into a reentry center.

Where prisoners used to sleep 20 to a room in rotating shifts, there will be offices. And where the rooftop recreation cages were once housed there will be beehives where visitors can learn the beekeeping trade. The facility will also offer housing, support services and job training. The Osborne Association received $6 million from the state to convert the prison, according to a July 9, 2016 news report in USA Today.

Unfortunately, other shuttered New York prisons have not been put to such rehabilitative or transformational uses. The Arthur Kill Correctional Facility was sold to Broadway Stages to be used as a movie, television and music-video studio, while Camp Gabriels was sold to Adam Fine, who planned to create a summer camp. [See: PLN, June 2014, p.54]. Camp Georgetown will be used to create a yoga and retreat center. And Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility was initially converted into a school but then sold to Gilbert Rybicki, who works in the mining and metals industries.

New York hit its prison population peak, with 71,600 prisoners, in 1999. As of September 2016, the state’s prison population had shrunk to 52,670. Thus far only minimum- and medium-security facilities have been closed; none were maximum-security.

Most of the closed prisons have been sold for the state’s economic benefit, with only Bayview and Fulton being used for socially-beneficial purposes.

In January 2016, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has overseen 13 of the recent prison closures, declared he intended to shutter even more facilities.

“I’m going to go down in the history books as the governor who closed the most prisons in the history of the State of New York, and I’m proud of it,” Cuomo said while visiting a church in Harlem.

While the governor did not provide any concrete details, his remarks drew criticism and concern from upstate lawmakers, who cited fears of job losses and lost revenue as a result of additional prison closures. During the earlier round of closures, rural communities rallied in an effort to keep the facilities open, as they provided economic benefits.

Fears of economic woes aside, a recent study suggests that criminal justice reform in the state has had a substantially positive impact on crime rates in New York City.

Released on October 31, 2016, a report titled “Better by Half: The New York City Story of Winning Large-Scale Decarceration while Increasing Public Safety” examined the concurrent decline in both incarceration and crime rates in New York. The report was authored by Justice Strategies executive director Judith Greene and Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management fellow Vincent Schiraldi (who previously served as New York City’s parole commissioner).

According to the study, crime rates in New York City fell by 58 percent from 1996 through 2014. During that time the city’s population grew by more than a million residents, yet the number of incarcerated New Yorkers dropped by over 31,000.

The report pointed to successful campaigns to end punitive policies such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes (e.g., the Rockefeller laws), as well as more productive alternatives to incarceration, as driving forces behind the trend.

While it’s a good sign that New York has closed facilities due to a decreasing prison population, various prisoners’ rights and reform organizations are now calling on the state to go one step further by turning all of the former prisons into reentry and rehabilitation centers. Thus far their requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Sources: www.thenation.com, www.lakeplacidnews.com, www.phys.org, www.novofoundation.org, USA Today

This article original appeared in Prison Legal News on February 8, 2017.