Sandy’s floodwaters wreaked havoc on 550 West 20th Street in Chelsea, destroying two boilers and the eight-story building’s electrical system. Such destruction was nothing unusual in the neighborhood, except for one thing: this building was not an art gallery or an exclusive hotel, but the last medium-security women’s prison in New York City.
Since the 1970s, Bayview Correctional Facility has sat on the site, occupying a YMCA built decades earlier for voyaging seamen. But after the storm hit on October 29, the inmates — 153 in all — were evacuated and sent “up the river” to prisons in Westchester and Dutchess counties.
At the time, state corrections officials predicted it might take weeks to return the inmates to Manhattan, but three months later, they were still dislocated. Then, on Jan. 22, Governor Cuomo announced as part of his 2014 budget proposal the state’s intention to close down the prison for good. (He also slated for shutdown Beacon, a minimum-security women’s prison.) The evacuation of inmates was to be permanent.
The announcement united inmates, corrections officers and prison advocates in collective dismay. In their view, the continued dislocation of inmates from the storm was a convenient reason for the state to justify what it wanted all along: to offload a property that lies incongruously in the heart of Chelsea, some of the most expensive real estate in Manhattan. But what may be good for the state’s legers bodes ill for women in the state’s criminal justice system and the rehabilitative programs available to them.
At the time of the evacuation, about 35 of Bayview’s inmates were enrolled in Bard College’s Prison Initiative, taking accredited college courses taught in-person by the liberal arts school’s professors. Since 2005, the program has enrolled hundreds of inmates in New York in classes and granted 157 college degrees to prisoners. Though a educational program exists at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison where some of Bayview’s inmates were relocated, the college preparatory classes offered there by Marymount College are not for credit.
Bayview was one of five prisons in New York where the Bard initiative operated, but the only one downriver. The evacuation following Sandy upended the students’ studies, according to Laura Liebman, director of development for the program.
“For our students, it was extremely traumatic and difficult for them to be evacuated and moved to different facilities,” said Liebman. “We were slated to have a commencement in December, so that was cancelled and the women were graduated in absentia.”
Liebman said inmates expected the move to be temporary; the news that Bayview is likely to close for good was a shock with heavy consequences. “The destruction to women and their relationships with their families is huge,” she said.
A second program at Bayview run by New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision gave about 40 inmates access to counseling and services six months before their sentences expired, in order to help their transition back into civilian life, including employment. The Corrections department lauded the program on its launch in 2009, and it was one of only two of its kind for women inmates in the state.
Corrections has not said whether the program will be replicated in other prisons if Bayview closes. The department did not respond to requests for comment.
“It being the only female facility downriver of the Tappan Zee Bridge with a work release program, it kind of shocked me,” said Donn Rowe, President of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, Inc.
His union represents 160 corrections officers who would be displaced by closing Bayview and Beacon prisons. At Bayview, he says, nearly two dozen of his members were kept at the site after Sandy to help prepare it for reopening, while the rest were temporarily placed at city jails. All now expect they’ll have to commute to facilities upstate, or move entirely.
As repairs to the building proceeded, corrections officers “thought it would reopen.” He says the prison is ready for service.
“They’ve pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Bayview since Sandy,” said Rowe, referring to the state Corrections department, ”and I believe it’s operational,”
For Tamar Kraft-Stolar of the Correctional Association, a prisoner-advocacy organization in New York City, the announcement of this prison’s shutdown was perhaps the only one she has not unequivocally applauded. “We strongly support prison closures in general, but for [Bayview and Beacon], we think it’s a mistake for the governor to move forward without a solid plan to replicate the programs that those facilities provide to women and their families,” she said.
Nearly half of the state’s female inmates lived in New York City before prison. Their displacement upstate poses obstacles to staying connected to children and families and participation in rehabilitative programs, said Kraft-Stolar.
Of particular concern to both the union and prisoner advocates is Cuomo’s intention to depart from state law regarding the timetable for prison closings. As currently written, the executive budget proposal would reduce the usual one-year notification requirement for prison closure to a mere 60 days.
“It doesn’t mean they are amending or changing the law; it just means they are not abiding by it,” said Rowe. Usually, he said, the notice of a proposed prison closing is announced to the community and the employees; within six months the state then produces a reuse plan that would include any decision to sell the property.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Cuomo had set his sights on closing Bayview as early as January 2011. According to the state, it is one of the state’s most inefficient prisons, with annual per-inmate staff costs of more than $74,000 — more than twice what it costs to incarcerate a prisoner upstate. By shutting down the relatively extravagant prison, the state projects it will save $18.7 million next fiscal year.
“We propose to close two of the least efficient prison facilities,” Cuomo said in announcing his proposed budget. “If we’re serious about balancing the budget, then we should run government the way it should be run.”
But the real value of the prison’s closing comes from the real estate the building sits on. When the state Corrections department purchased the Seamen’s YMCA in 1967, Chelsea was still a rough industrial neighborhood inhabited by blue-collar types who worked the piers, warehouses and factories. Today, Bayview is smack in the middle of a desirable and luxurious neighborhood, sandwiched between the High Line and Chelsea Piers to the east and west, and boutiques like Comme de Garçons to the south.
Next door to Bayview is 100 11th Avenue, a new luxury condo building where a square foot was selling for around $1,850 in early 2012, a record for the neighborhood. One apartment in the building, designed by award-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, went on the market for $16.9 million in 2012.
The governor’s budget predicts the state could receive as much as $62 million from the sale of the prison, which is owned by the Urban Development Corporation.
State law requires that bids for a property belonging to a public authority must be publicly advertised. In the previous nine instances in which the state has shuttered a prison under Gov. Cuomo, the Empire State Development Corporation has announced potential plans for the reuse of the site to the public. (So far, none have been sold or repurposed.)
In the case of Bayview, it is not clear whether these procedures will be followed. If the legislature approves the governor’s budget by April 1, the prison would be officially closed by May 31.
Presently, the Bayview site is zoned for a mix of development, including offices, hotels, retail and entertainment as well as residential apartments. The site is also in an inclusionary zoning area, meaning that developers have incentives, but not requirements, to create affordable housing at the site.
The Urban Development Corporation would not comment about the future sale of the property.
When West Chelsea underwent rezoning in 2005, Ed Kirkland, a longtime Chelsea resident and then chairman of the Chelsea Preservation and Planning Committee, attempted to begin the process of having the Bayview building protected by the city Landmarks Preservation Commission. “We looked into getting it landmarked, but the state was clearly not interested,” said Kirkland, who recently retired from his seat on Community Board 4 after nearly three decades.
“It is a real concern that the building should be reused in keeping with its historic character,” he said. “But I think people are more or less resigned to the neighborhood being more and more gentrified. There’s no mechanism for stopping it because that’s city policy.”