IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Who wants to buy New York's closed prisons?

After trying to solve budget problems through traditional means, like freezing state workers’ wages, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is turning to a new tactic.
A handball court at the former Oneida Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison that closed last October, in Rome, N.Y., May, 11, 2012. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is embarking on a less traditional effort to cut costs: trying to sell New York's old
A handball court at the former Oneida Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison that closed last October, in Rome, N.Y. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is embarking on a less traditional effort to cut costs: trying to sell New York's old prisons.Nathaniel Brooks / The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

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.

Lower crime rates
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.

The state has other real estate to offer as well, including a Romanesque armory in Poughkeepsie where soldiers drilled before the Spanish-American War and a one-time rehabilitation center for young women in the Finger Lakes region.

Auctions, eBay store
For less imaginative buyers, last month the Cuomo administration auctioned 454 cars and trucks, which sold briskly. It has also set up an eBay store, hoping someone sitting at home will be tempted to buy 15 vintage industrial saw blades or 250 Dell USB keyboards.

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.

Several other properties have already been sold at auction or turned over to local governments, including armories in Suffolk and Washington Counties, a youth residential center in Cattaraugus County and a five-bedroom town house in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that featured century-old wood wainscoting and decorative balustrades and netted $810,000 for the state.

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.

'A liability'
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.’ ”

Yogurt plant?
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.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.