Sharon Richardson remembers looking out the window of Bayview Correctional Facility, the sole women’s prison within New York’s five boroughs. “I could see the ships coming in and I wondered, ‘When is my ship coming in?’”
For more than three decades, the Bayview Correctional Facility sat inconspicuously on the far west side of Manhattan, across Eleventh Avenue from Chelsea Piers, a 28-acre sports and entertainment complex on the Hudson waterfront. Inside its walls, life was harsh and often violent; in 2010, the federal Bureau for Justice Statistics reported that Bayview had the highest rate of staff sexual violence of any US prison. Outside, art galleries sprouted like Chihuly flowers while high-end buildings by reigning architects—Frank Gehry, Pritzker Prize–winner Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano—jutted self-consciously toward the sky. If not for the blue sign hanging over the prison’s front door—and smaller red-and-white signs in English and Spanish prohibiting photographs—tourists and gallery goers might not give the building a second glance.
Now, however, the building will serve a different purpose. On Monday, October 26, 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the former prison will be transformed into a women’s building.
The NoVo Foundation, a private foundation established by Jennifer and Peter Buffett (youngest son of investor Warren Buffett), in collaboration with the women’s real-estate development company the Goren Group, has been awarded a 50-year lease to transform the former prison into the Women’s Building—a space where women and girls can access services and resources. “This very building stands for the possibilities when women’s potential is nurtured and not locked away,” said Pamela Shifman, the foundation’s executive director.
Although plans are still being developed, Shifman envisions a place that will offer women’s organizations a combination of office space, shared events and conference spaces, along with a wellness center and on-site childcare. NoVo is partnering with the Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Women and Justice Project to ensure that formerly incarcerated women, including those who have spent time in Bayview, are involved in envisioning and planning the transformation. In addition to helping plan what the building will offer, women who have been locked inside the former prison will also recommend what aspects should be preserved during the renovation. “We want the building to be able to tell the story of what women went through at Bayview,” Shifman said.
The transformation from women’s prison to Women’s Building was a process that extended over years and required both political willpower and financial backing—hurdles the NoVo Foundation, which annually gives $50 million in grants, was well positioned to navigate. And it might easily have gone another way. When news that Bayview was up for redevelopment first hit, advocates worried that it would be turned into yet another luxury condominium for moneyed New Yorkers.
Yet what makes the moment particularly unusual is that it isn’t the only instance in recent months when a former prison has been transformed into its near-opposite: a place dedicated to addressing the underlying causes of violence and incarceration. Nine months ago, a similar announcement took place at a ceremony in the Bronx as city and state officials successfully engineered the transfer of the former Fulton Correctional Facility to the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that assists people released from prison. On January 29, 2015, advocates, including people who had spent time at Fulton and other prisons, braved the hills of snow covering the sidewalk to attend a ceremony in which Anthony Annucci, the acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, fished through his pockets before handing the prison’s only key to Elizabeth Gaynes, Osborne’s president and CEO.
With the transfer, Fulton will become a reentry center. That means that the cages where men once spent a lonely hour exercising in seclusion on the roof will soon be replaced by beehives where people can learn beekeeping. And the cells where men once slept 20 to a room in rotating shifts will soon become offices where men and women can find services designed to help them adjust to the post-prison city.
“If we can’t have work release, let’s have post-release,” declared Elizabeth Gaynes, Osborne’s president and CEO.
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For the last few years, New York State has been engaged in a process that runs counter to decades of state and national history: closing prisons. These closures were set in motion by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2011, when he declared during his State of the State speech that incarceration “is not an employment program.” Several months later, he announced the closing of seven prisons.
Bayview and Fulton are among 14 prisons that have been shuttered within the past few years. Yet, while advocates celebrate the closures, some wonder about the choices of prisons, all minimum- and medium-security facilities, that Cuomo has shuttered—and those he has chosen to leave open. Why were none of the maximum-security prisons, particularly those with long histories of abuse and violence, on the chopping block? There’s also the question of what to do with these empty facilities. Can they be used to help those who were once trapped inside rebuild their lives, or will they simply go to the highest bidder?
While Osborne and NoVo are demonstrating that such a transformation is possible, the fate of the twelve other prisons has not been as promising. No other sites are currently slated to provide assistance and opportunities to those whose lives have been devastated by mass incarceration, or to the communities surrounding these now-empty structures.
Jack Norton, who has been studying prisons and development in northern New York for the past four years, has his doubts about the process. “While prison closures are a positive development for New York, the process has been opaque,” said Norton, who is earning his PhD at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “People in the towns where prisons have been closed have no idea why those particular facilities were shuttered, and those in the communities where most people in prison come from are not seeing any tangible benefits from the money saved from the closures.”
Long before NoVo’s announcement, Bayview’s closing was one of the many that raised concerns. While it was a well-known site of violence, it was also the sole women’s prisons within the five boroughs and the easiest one for families, most of whom lived in the city, to visit.
The prison was initially emptied during Hurricane Sandy, when flooding destroyed boilers and electrical equipment, requiring over $600,000 in repairs. All 153 women were evacuated to prisons upstate—never to return. Then, in January 2013, Cuomo announced that the state would be closing the prison, stating that the staff cost for housing one woman at Bayview is $74,385, compared to $34,000 in other state prisons. State Senator Brad Hoylman, whose district includes Chelsea, publicly opposed the closing—not because of the jobs that would be lost but, again, because Bayview’s location made it possible for children, parents, siblings, and significant others to stay connected with their loved ones. The medium-security prison also had a work release program and a 40-bed reentry unit for women returning to their New York City homes.
Arthur Kill, a 931-bed men’s prison on Staten Island, was also relatively close for many families—less than a 90-minute bus ride from where the Staten Island ferry dropped off. Daud Nashid was imprisoned at Arthur Kill when Cuomo announced that the prison was on the chopping block. He remembers that, when they heard the news, the men inside did what might otherwise be unthinkable—they joined forces with staff to protest the closing. They mounted a campaign to bombard both legislators and the governor with letters arguing against the closure. They urged family members and other visitors to do the same. In the end, however, they were unsuccessful. Arthur Kill closed in 2011, and its residents, including Nashid, were shipped to various prisons upstate.
Meanwhile, as prisons like Fulton, Bayview, and Arthur Kill have been shuttered, maximum-security prisons and those with long histories of violence have remained untouched. These are places like the Attica Correctional Facility, which became infamous in 1971 after a four-day uprising ended with state troopers raiding the prison and killing 43 people, and which is still creating controversy today. In its 2014 report on Attica, the Correctional Association of New York, an organization that monitors prisons in the state, described the site as “a real and symbolic epicenter of state violence and abuse behind walls.” And in 2015, Attica made headlines when three guards were indicted after pulling 29-year-old George Williams out of his cell and beating him so brutally that he was unable to walk. What made the episode newsworthy was not the staff violence, which is all too frequent a reality at Attica, but the fact that this was the first time in the history of the New York State Department of Corrections that charges were filed against staff for a non-sexual assault of a person in custody.
This brutality has led to calls from organizations like the Correctional Association and many others for shutting down Attica altogether. In March 2015, formerly incarcerated people, family members, community members, and advocates launched a campaign called Beyond Attica: Close Prisons, Build Communities. The campaign calls for Attica’s immediate closure and an end to the violence and abuse across the state’s prison system. But the campaign doesn’t simply want to close the prison and shuffle those inside elsewhere. It also calls for the state to reduce prison violence by reducing the number of prisons and people inside—in other words, to decarcerate.
“Incarceration itself is violent,” Scott Paltrowitz, the associate director of the Correctional Association’s Prison Visiting Project and member of Beyond Attica, told The Nation. “Even in many medium-security prisons, there is the daily emotional and psychological harm, indirect violence, harassment, abuse, and even physical brutality.”
“I would like to see them all closed,” said Nashid, who has been incarcerated in prisons throughout New York State, including Attica and Arthur Kill. Now a community activist and a member of Beyond Attica, he notes, “[None] produce a productive citizen.”
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Given the violence inflicted by so many prisons as well as their utter failure as sites of rehabilitation, it’s reasonable to ask whether these now-closed sites will be used to benefit those whose lives have been devastated by incarceration. While the transformation of Bayview and Fulton illustrate the possibility of repurposing a site to benefit the community, what about the other prisons? Will they improve the lives of residents or help transform the area? Or will they simply become real estate deals going to the highest bidder?
Arthur Kill spans 69 acres with 43 buildings along the waterfront of Staten Island’s West Shore. Following its closure, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESD), the public-benefit corporation responsible for promoting economic growth in New York State, issued a Request for Proposals for organizations seeking to acquire and redevelop the property. The following year, it chose Broadway Stages, a New York City–based film, television, and music-video production company, which will purchase the site for $7 million and invest at least $20 million to convert it into a studio. In addition, it will make the prison available for film use within six months of closing on the property. The development, predicted ESD, will create new jobs and perhaps bring new businesses to the area, which currently is home to a sprawl of garages and auto repair shops, a giant Lowes, Cousins Paintball (voted best paintball park in 2012) and, across the street, Gericke/Winant Farm, one of New York City’s oldest working farms.
Unlike Bayview and Fulton, whose future uses recognize and address the wounds of incarceration, Arthurkill’s fate seems purely economic. It’s a situation that is even more pronounced in upstate New York, where shuttered prisons have routinely gone to the highest bidder, with little consideration given to community interests, job creation, or attracting new businesses. Camp Gabriels, a minimum-security prison spanning 90 acres in the Adirondacks, was closed in 2009 by Cuomo’s predecessor, David Paterson. Following its closure, Mohawk writer and activist Doug George and the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge expressed interest in turning the site into a Mohawk cultural center, summer camp and language retention center.
The group was unsuccessful, however, and the site was put on the auction block. Two auctions yielded no bidders. In October 2013, the starting bid was lowered to $90,000. It was finally sold for $166,000 to Adam Fine, who announced plans to turn the site into a summer camp.
Around the same time, corporate researcher Shekhar Patel bought Camp Georgetown, a minimum-security prison in Madison County, for $241,000. Patel originally announced that he too was planning a summer camp for high-school students interested in science and technology, but now Patel is considering transforming the site into a year-round yoga and retreat center.
Even less is known about the fate of Lyon Mountain, a minimum-security prison converted from a former school in 1983, near the Canadian border. Jack Norton attended the July 10, 2013, auction, held at the Dannemora Town Hall across the street from the still-open maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility (yes, the same Clinton Correctional Facility from which two prisoners escaped this past June). The opening bid—in fact, the only bid—was $140,000 from Gilbert Rybicki, a Quebecois businessman whose LinkedIn profile lists his business as mining and metals. Rybicki has not disclosed his plans for the site.
Is there a way to close prisons in a progressive and forward-thinking way? The Osborne model offers one possibility, but it took years of political willpower, with local politicians like state senators Gustavo Rivera and Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. recognizing the importance of providing support to the 11,000 people returning to the Bronx from prison each year. They went to bat for the project and even contributed funds to help make the repurposing a reality.
“We cannot leave these communities devastated,” Hassell-Thompson said at the January 29 ceremony marking the transfer. “We must reuse these spaces.”
In the Bronx, reusing Fulton will help smooth the transition for men and women finally free of prison with job training and placement, interim housing (which potentially includes housing for aging and disabled people) and other support services. Osborne plans to begin construction in 2016.
The NoVo Foundation offers another example, although the doors to the newly renovated Women’s Building aren’t slated to open for four to five years. Sharon Richardson, who walked out of Bayview in 2010, now works with incarcerated women with histories of domestic violence at STEPS to End Family Violence and is starting her own nonprofit, Reentry Rocks. She reflects that, not long ago, the building was a site of pain, misery and violence. “Now it stands for freedom!”
But as politicians and advocates celebrate the transformations of Bayview and Fulton, the question remains—do other local and state officials have the vision and the will to push for similar transformations?