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

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From The Nation :

Sharon Richardson remembers looking out the window of Bayview Correctional Facility, the sole women’s prison within New York’s five boroughs. “I could see the ships coming in and I wondered, ‘When is my ship coming in?’”

For more than three decades, the Bayview Correctional Facility sat inconspicuously on the far west side of Manhattan, across Eleventh Avenue from Chelsea Piers, a 28-acre sports and entertainment complex on the Hudson waterfront. Inside its walls, life was harsh and often violent; in 2010, the federal Bureau for Justice Statistics reported that Bayview had the highest rate of staff sexual violence of any US prison. Outside, art galleries sprouted like Chihuly flowers while high-end buildings by reigning architects—Frank Gehry, Pritzker Prize–winner Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano—jutted self-consciously toward the sky. If not for the blue sign hanging over the prison’s front door—and smaller red-and-white signs in English and Spanish prohibiting photographs—tourists and gallery goers might not give the building a second glance.

Now, however, the building will serve a different purpose. On Monday, October 26, 2015, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the former prison will be transformed into a women’s building.

The NoVo Foundation, a private foundation established by Jennifer and Peter Buffett (youngest son of investor Warren Buffett), in collaboration with the women’s real-estate development company the Goren Group, has been awarded a 50-year lease to transform the former prison into the Women’s Building—a space where women and girls can access services and resources. “This very building stands for the possibilities when women’s potential is nurtured and not locked away,” said Pamela Shifman, the foundation’s executive director.

Although plans are still being developed, Shifman envisions a place that will offer women’s organizations a combination of office space, shared events and conference spaces, along with a wellness center and on-site childcare. NoVo is partnering with the Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Women and Justice Project to ensure that formerly incarcerated women, including those who have spent time in Bayview, are involved in envisioning and planning the transformation. In addition to helping plan what the building will offer, women who have been locked inside the former prison will also recommend what aspects should be preserved during the renovation. “We want the building to be able to tell the story of what women went through at Bayview,” Shifman said.

The transformation from women’s prison to Women’s Building was a process that extended over years and required both political willpower and financial backing—hurdles the NoVo Foundation, which annually gives $50 million in grants, was well positioned to navigate. And it might easily have gone another way. When news that Bayview was up for redevelopment first hit, advocates worried that it would be turned into yet another luxury condominium for moneyed New Yorkers.

Yet 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.

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