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New York Finding Closed Prisons a Tough Sell

by Chuck Sharman

Since its peak nearly two decades ago, New York’s prisoner population has fallen by half. Added to the millions of dollars it cost the state Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS) to build the prisons are millions more to shutter them. Some closed properties were sold at auction, but in most cases the state recovered only a fraction of its initial investment. The remaining former prisons, often located in remote rural areas, have proven impossible to sell, leaving the state with white elephants.

Or maybe it’s better to call them chickens, hatched from mass incarceration, clucking loudly as they come home to roost.

DOCCS has closed more than two dozen state prisons over the past 15 years, six since the beginning of 2022 closed by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D). In some instances, investors purchased the properties but failed to find buyers who wanted to redevelop them. More often, it’s the state left holding the bag.

A rural prison creates its own mini-economy, with hotels and restaurants and convenience stores for those visiting prisoners, along with housing and services for those who staff them. All of that slowly goes dark when the prison closes. Hoping to revitalize these local economies, Hochul formed a Prison Redevelopment Commission in 2022 to jump-start the redevelopment process. Co-chaired by Empire State Development President Hope Knight and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, the commission’s goal is to transform these eyesores into productive assets that generate jobs and contribute to local tax rolls.

Lawmakers who have been raising concerns about the blighted facilities welcome the initiative but believe it should have been launched years ago. Assemblyman Billy Jones (D-Plattbrug), who used to work as a guard at one of the closed lockups, expressed his frustration that so many empty prisons “have been sitting around for years.”

“In the climate I live in, with our harsh winters, if you don’t take care of your property it has a huge negative impact on your buildings,” Jones said.

Assemblyman Chris Tague (R-Schoharie) is working with Ostego County officials to help the new owner of the former Camp Summit to find a developer. The “shock” incarceration facility closed in 2008. Its program – regimented discipline and physical activity combined with confrontational drug counseling – proved an ineffective approach to rehabilitation that was often abusive and had no effect on recidivism. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.45.]

Tague envisions the site still being used for substance abuse treatment programs. But finding an operator willing to run it has proven challenging, as well as a race against time before the site falls further into disrepair. Concerned about closing prisons without a clear vision for their future, he and fellow lawmakers sponsored legislation to guide redevelopment of sold properties, but their proposals did not gain traction.

“This is another example of the state putting the cart before the horse,” Tague said. 

Source: Oneonta Daily Star