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May 28, 2012

A market challenge for sentencing reformers: imagining profitable uses for closed prisons

PRISONSBREAK2-custom1The title of this post is prompted by this fascinating new article from the New York Times, which is headlined "New York Has Some Prisons to Sell You." Here are the story basics:

One property, in the Hudson Valley, includes a 16-car garage, a piggery and hundreds of yards of lake frontage. Another offers 69 acres of waterfront land on the west shore of Staten Island, complete with a two-story gymnasium, a baseball diamond and an open-air pavilion.

Those seeking seclusion have an option, too: 20 acres adjoining state forest land in rural Schoharie County, perfect for hunting, trapping and fishing. The property comes with its own wastewater- and sewage-treatment plants, as well as a chapel and a carpentry shop.

The ideal buyer is someone who craves space to spread out, and who does not mind a property that has had thousands of guests over the years. And a fondness for “The Shawshank Redemption” would not hurt.

These real-estate listings come from an unpracticed seller, the State of New York. After cutting costs through traditional means like freezing wages of state workers and consolidating government offices, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is embarking on a less conventional effort: trying to sell New York’s old prisons.

The state has a glut of vacant correctional facilities because of lower crime rates, new programs that allow early release for nonviolent offenders and the dismantling of its strict drug laws. The situation in New York reflects changing national attitudes toward criminal justice policy: the number of state prisoners nationwide declined in 2009 and 2010 for the first times in at least three decades, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Mr. Cuomo’s predecessor, Gov. David A. Paterson, closed three prisons as he confronted budget problems. Mr. Cuomo declared in his first address to the State Legislature that prisons were “not an employment program,” and proceeded to shut seven of the state’s remaining 67 correctional facilities, removing 3,800 beds.

These closings reflect a sharp reversal. After New York adopted mandatory drug sentences in 1973, the state’s prison population soared from 13,437 to a peak of 71,472 in 1999, prompting a boom in prison construction, much of it during the tenure of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the current governor’s father. But since then, the number of inmates in state facilities has fallen nearly a quarter, to about 55,000, leaving thousands of empty beds....

Last year, Mr. Cuomo formed a facility closure team, composed of agency commissioners, that meets weekly to go property by property to find more that can be sold. “Instead of spending millions maintaining facilities we don’t need,” said Howard B. Glaser, director of state operations, “the governor’s approach saves taxpayers millions and opens up transformative economic development and investment opportunities in communities across the state.”

Among the facilities the team is considering selling are 23 state-owned residences set aside for prison superintendents. Some are quite lavish: one in Auburn, to be auctioned this summer, is an 8,850-square-foot brick mansion with eight bedrooms, six bathrooms, an attached gazebo and a barn-size garage....

But the prisons are by far the largest, and most challenging to sell, of the properties on the market. Some of them would be quite expensive to maintain or demolish, and many are in rural areas where real estate is inexpensive and undeveloped land is plentiful.

“It’s a building that’s just sitting there,” said Harold Vroman, chairman of the board of supervisors in Schoharie County, where Mr. Cuomo shut down a 100-bed minimum-security prison last year. “Who wants to buy a jail, you know?”

Other states offer some encouraging examples. In Massachusetts, the old Charles Street Jail in Boston was transformed into the Liberty Hotel, which opened in 2007 and embraces its history — among the offerings at one of its bars, Alibi, is a $12 blueberry mojito called the Jailbait. And three years ago in New Jersey, the cells were removed from a former county jail in Newark and the building was converted into government office space.

But those buildings were jails, which are often smaller, grander and more centrally located than prisons. “Those ones, like old courthouses, have a future life,” said Elizabeth Minnis, chairwoman of the American Institute of Architects’ advisory group for correctional facilities, courthouses and law-enforcement buildings. “But the stuff out in the middle of nowhere, it probably has nothing. You’re going to have to just try to get it off your books. It’s almost worth paying somebody to take it off your hands or give it away for free, because it becomes a liability.”

Consider the Oneida Correctional Facility, a 998-bed medium-security prison in Rome that closed last October. It shares utilities with a rather unattractive neighbor: another state prison. “The only possible thing that you could use this for would be for government or military,” said Fred Macchia, a commercial real-estate broker in Rome. “You couldn’t make it into a hotel. You couldn’t make it into an apartment complex. You’re talking millions of dollars to renovate. Who’s going to do it? The state’s not going to do it — they’re trying to get rid of it.”

All three prisons closed by Mr. Paterson are vacant. One was mentioned as a possible test site for hydraulic fracturing, the much-debated method of extracting natural gas. Another, Camp Gabriels — a minimum-security prison in Brighton, in the Adirondacks, that was originally built as a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients — has twice been put up for auction, first with a minimum price of $950,000, and then with a $750,000 minimum. No one bid either time.

“The state, when they closed the prison, it didn’t seem like they had much of a plan,” said Brian McDonnell, a member of the town board in Brighton. “You get the impression that they just walked away and threw the keys in the river and said, ‘Well, move along.’ ”

Cuomo administration officials said they were more optimistic about the prisons they shut down last year. They are reviewing proposals for a new retail development to replace the former Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island, and for a manufacturing plant at Camp Georgetown, a shuttered 262-bed prison in central New York.

In the Hudson Valley, local officials have taken the lead in trying to find a new use for the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in Warwick. They want to split the 736-bed prison property into smaller parcels, and several manufacturers have expressed interest in moving to the site. Other ideas for reuse included a wildlife sanctuary, a solar power facility and a Greek-style yogurt plant.

Michael Sweeton, the Warwick town supervisor, said local officials feared that if they did not come up with ideas for the prison, the state would “get some knucklehead guy to pick it up for what he thinks is a song” and let the property fall into disrepair. “We didn’t want them to think that we were just going to sit on our hands and let this play out,” Mr. Sweeton said. “We looked at it as a great opportunity.”

As advocate continue to urge sentencing and prison reforms in states around the nation, they would do well to help jurisdiction figure out how to make better use of the extra prisons and related space that get freed up by effective reforms like those in New York.  I share the view that closed prisons could and should become a great opportunity not only for states and local communities, but also for some clever private developers and/or industries.  Indeed, given that there are already (too) many private corporations and organizations profiting directly from the growing the size and scope of incarceration nation, long-term reform efforts could and would benefit from having some number of private corporations and organizations profiting directly from shrinking the size and scope of incarceration nation.

I am pleased to see from the New York Times article that various folks are thinking about various ways to make good use of shuttered prisons and related property.  But I suspect and hope that readers of this blog might be able to brainstorm on other market possibilities.  Especially as I gear up for The Memorial Tournament this week here in Ohio while also watching The French Open, I am thinking maybe some of the prison properties could be converted into unusual golf and tennis resorts.  Any other clever ideas, dear readers?

May 28, 2012 at 11:59 AM | Permalink


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In Texas, the flip side of that was a driver for closing a prison. The Central Unit, formerly the Imperial Unit, was built plantation style to provide convict-leasing labor for the Imperial Sugar company. Now Imperial has closed and the unit lies in a suburban growth corridor. So much of the pressure to close the unit came not just from "reformers" but from real -estate interests who wanted to put the property to better and higher (economic) uses. The state is under pressure to sell more of the prison system's vast holdings, and with several more units in the way of local development and siphoning funds from local tax rolls, it's likely in the near term this issue won't be a "problem" for reformers in Texas but, quite the contrary, an opportunity.

Closure of very rural juvie units here posed more of this sort of difficulty, but a lot of the adult prisons were built in what once was the boondocks and are now the Houston suburbs.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | May 28, 2012 12:18:30 PM

Last resort for super obese people.

The person weighs 700 lbs, and is in heart failure, soon to be fatal.

With signed consent by patient or health guardian, check into these locked places. A nutritionist designs a diet. Once agreed to by patient, it is the sole food provided. The patient has free access to exercise equipment, showers, etc. but may not leave. If the patient wants to work, he should have access to the internet. For example, a secretary may do her typing and send it by the internet. Mutual consent to sexual activity is respected with privacy.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 28, 2012 4:26:37 PM

I mentioned people who cannot control their food intake would benefit from the restrictiveness of a former prison. The same could be said for any other uncontrolled but harmful impulses. Sex offenders, alcoholics, gamblers, even workaholics who must have a vacation to save their families and sanities. The walls between cells could be knocked down for greater space. Amenities could be added, pools, golf courses. Some prisons already come with those.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 28, 2012 5:51:46 PM

Honestly, why not affordable or Section 8 housing. Compared to some of the housing projects I've seen, prison would be an improvement (in the vacant, renovated sense).

Posted by: Daniel | May 28, 2012 9:27:53 PM

I propose an ongoing Stanford Prison Experiment/hotel setting. A vacation attraction for adults. One target audience to buy could be the BDSM (sadomasochism) community.

Posted by: Anon | May 29, 2012 1:21:14 AM

Here in Virginia, we have two examples of former prisons being used/proposed for adaptive reuse.

In Staunton, the former Staunton Correctional Center (originally Western State Hospital, a mental hospital converted into a prison when the hosptial moved to a new campus) is in the process of being converted into a luxury hotel, high priced (for the location) condos, retail, and office space. The reuse is primarily driven by the original use as a mental hosptial - in the 1820s when the campus was started, mental hospitals followed the "resort" model - with beautiful buildings, gardens, etc. As a result, the campus is truly beautiful with beautiful old buildings and garden spaces. It is also located in the middle of a historic small city which has a bit of a housing boom due to population growth in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg which are both within easy commuting distance of Staunton. Staunton is much cheaper than Charlottesville and much prettier than Harrisonburg.

In Brunswick County (which claims to be the birthplace of Brunswick Stew which is disputed by other Brunswicks in the South) the former Brunswick Correctional Center was proposed as an Icky Perv Housing Resort - a.k.a. a sex offender treatment center. Such proposal was shot down by NIMBYs who refused to live near icky pervs at the sex offender treatment center. Obviously, the opposition of NIMBYs to icky perv treatment resorts drives my proposed Erika's Icky Perv Island since an island will be located in nobodys back yard due to the natural isolation of an island.

Erika :)

Posted by: Erika | May 29, 2012 10:12:34 AM

well erika maybe we should just kill off all the goodie-goodie's and hate filled retards in this country and turn IT into Erika's Icky Perv treatment Center for the WORLD!

Posted by: rodsmith | May 29, 2012 11:14:16 AM

Feminism is icky.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 29, 2012 4:11:49 PM

of course, women are icky to you, dear, little boys always thinks that girls are icky.

maybe when you grow up you will feel differently :P

erika :)

Posted by: Erika | May 30, 2012 11:26:56 AM

"Erika's Icky Perv Island since an island will be located in nobodys back yard due to the natural isolation of an island."

Who will think of the hermits?

Posted by: Daniel | May 30, 2012 2:44:22 PM

daniel: "Who will think of the hermits?"

me: the hermit crabs???

Posted by: Erika | May 30, 2012 3:53:55 PM

anon: "One target audience to buy could be the BDSM (sadomasochism) community."

me: obviously the hotel being built in the former WSH/Staunton Correctional Center in Virginia should be a natural for this market - since the building had both previous uses, you could go with either a mental health theme or a prison theme for your play.

Or you could stay two nights and do both ;)

Erika :)

Posted by: Erika | May 30, 2012 4:02:16 PM

Most women hate feminism, and all their representatives in government. Most women are wonderful.

Feminists are icky. To equate women with feminism is true only in the Twilight Zone world of the icky feminist lawyer. What a self deluding presumption. You probably defended people who killed many black men. You are with the KKK, just a slicker far deadlier version. It took the KKK 100 years to lynch 5000 black men. We have an excess of 5000 murders of black men each year. The feminist lawyer is 100 times deadlier to the black male than the KKK, a lawyer and judge founded and run fraternal organization. Pretty icky.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 31, 2012 5:39:13 AM

One reason for the excessive murders of black males is bastardy. The icky feminist lawyer has destroyed the black family, after it had survived tremendous stresses over hundreds of years. White have no cuase for smugness. The white family is next, with the federalization of child support, and huge bounties on divorce, prompting females to turn low level conflicts into divorces. Most divorces are unnecessary and wasteful, except to generate bastardy, and lawyer divorce fees. Then adolescent boys cannot be controlled by single mothers, and grow up in the streets, where their mortality rate is through the roof.

The family is under assault from all sides. It is being denigrated by homosexual marriage. It being undermined by child abuse laws prohibiting even verbal criticism (emotional abuse), then ignoring (emotional neglect). Everyone over 18 will be a mandated reporter, with expensive fines ($10,000 for the first failure to report, $50,000 for the subsequent failures).

Feminism is itself a false front, a lawyer masking ideology, for the real business scheme, just as the KKK was part of a lawyer business plan.

Government wants to take our kids to raise them in their socialist paradise.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 31, 2012 5:50:10 AM

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