The Nation | What Happens When Old Prisons Are Given Back to Their Communities?

03 November 2015

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By Victoria Law | The Nation

What Happens When Old Prisons Are Given Back to Their Communities?
As New York State begins closing prisons, some are being sold to the highest bidder—but some are becoming sites of social change.

The following is an excerpt, the full article can be read here.

[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.


Fulton Correctional Facility in the
South Bronx. (Tracie Williams)

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.Regrettably, there is still a racial wage gap everywhere in the American economy. But recent studies show that the wage gap is much lower in the New York City unionized construction sector than in nonunion construction. In fact, African-American workers face a far lower wage gap in all unionized industries than their nonunion competitors. As the numbers of blacks in the unionized sector increase and their longevity increases, so will their wages, further decreasing this wage gap. 

Read the full article here