Wide Angle: Prison Blues

fine 3d image of grunge jail background

The number of inmates in New York prisons has plummeted 57 percent since its peak in 1999, according to a 2022 report by the New York State Prison Redevelopment Commission, and 20 prisons have been closed over the past two decades. “While some have been repurposed,” the report states, “many are languishing, providing no local jobs, and blighting their communities.”

The Downstate Correctional Facility just outside Beacon, which went dark in March 2022, is one of those shuttered 20 prisons. Although it’s only been 13 months, what can be done to keep it from joining the ranks of “languishing,” as apparently has happened with the neighboring Beacon Correctional Facility?

This is not unique to New York state. Prisons have closed in at least 21 states since 2000. Some have found new lives: In Tennessee, the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary is a whiskey distillery; in Texas, the Dawson State Jail is being converted into a nonprofit office and community space; in Virginia, the Lorton Reformatory will become a housing and retail development.

In New York, the state has named Downstate as one of the first two prisons that will be opened for requests for proposals. However, from the start, there seems to be disagreement about what foundation has been laid so far. 

The redevelopment commission asserts that its team “visited each closed prison in the portfolio, meeting with local leaders and community members to hear about on-the-ground conditions — how the closures have impacted them and what they would like to see moving forward.” 

But Marc Molinaro, then the Dutchess County executive (and now in Congress), said last year: “There has been no coordination between the governor’s office and Dutchess County on the closure of this large facility, nor a coordinated plan for the future use of the parcel and the hundreds of workers who will be affected.”

That seems like a bad start.

The Beacon Correctional Facility closed in 2013, and the lack of redevelopment there is a cautionary tale. Although approved by the state in 2019, a planned redevelopment with commercial, retail, recreation space and housing has stalled.

Downstate covers around 80 acres, with 50 acres within the former prison perimeter and 30 outside. There are more than 550,000 square feet in the many buildings, 342,000 of which were used for individual incarceration.

The site is at the top of a hill, reached by the two-lane Matteawan Road, which runs from Beacon to Fishkill. Beacon supplies water and sewage service, so clearly, any development that would increase the number of residents and/or visitors would require serious analysis of infrastructure and environmental impacts beyond what the prison had.

Any redevelopment should at least include housing, although as the immediate reaction to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s push for increased, affordable units statewide has shown, there will always be local opposition to creating neighbors. 

In Fishkill, the town supervisor, Ozzy Albra, said last year he would not support any development at the prison site that includes high-density housing. However, if push comes to shove, the question of the near future may be: If not there, where?

Housing might not fill the entire 120 combined acres of the two former prisons. Downstate is now sometimes used for TV and movie productions that require a prison setting. Perhaps the facility could be repurposed into a production facility, as was done with the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island.

And how does SUNY Matteawan sound?

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