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Plan to Close Chelsea Women's Prison Draws Fire

By Mathew Katz | March 4, 2013 8:46am

CHELSEA — A state plan to shut down the city's only medium-security women's prison has come under fire from locals and elected officials, who say the West Chelsea facility provides important rehabilitation services to New York's inmates and their families.

Bayview Correctional Facility at 550 W. 20th St. is surrounded by posh art galleries, soaring condos, and the Chelsea Piers recreational complex. Some locals, on edge about encroaching gentrification in the neighborhood, also fear the historic building could become yet another high-priced residential high-rise.

After Hurricane Sandy, the prison's 153 inmates were moved to three upstate facilities and will likely never return if Gov. Andrew Cuomo's plan to sell of the prison goes through.

Cuomo's 2013-2014 budget proposal argues that the $74,385 annual cost per inmate at Bayview is significantly higher than the state's benchmark of roughly $34,000. The budget estimates the closure of Bayview as well as the Beacon Correctional Facility in Dutchess County would save roughly $18.7 million this year, and grow to $62.1 million once the building is sold off amid the booming West Chelsea real estate market.

But with many of its inmates hailing from the five boroughs, State Sen. Brad Hoylman said the facility provides an essential service by keeping prisoners close to home.

"The fact that they are within proximity to their families is important to their rehabilitation and reintegration into society," said Hoylman, whose district includes Chelsea. "The problem with our prisons is that many are upstate and far away from many of the families that are incarcerated — that inhibits their re-entry into society."

The prison also has a successful work-release program that helps inmates find jobs in the city and earn money while still returning to the complex every night. Even if the work-release program were moved to prisons upstate, it would mean well-behaved prisoners would either have to make a lengthy commute or be forced to take jobs outside of New York City.

"I'm not saying we should make an investment in keeping prisons open, but this one is a unique re-entry facility," Hoylman said. "Prisons should be about rehabilitation and less about incarceration."

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said the prison remains empty except for some staff there to provide maintenance, business office and security support. She referred questions about the sale to the state Division of the Budget, which did not respond to requests for comment.

For others, the terra cotta-ornamented building has historic importance to the neighborhood. Built in 1931, the building originally served as a YMCA, providing cheap beds to longshoremen and merchant marines from the nearby piers. It was turned into a prison in 1974.

"I hope they keep it as something that serves the public and I just hope they maintain some of the integrity of the building itself," said Lesley Doyel, who heads up the neighborhood preservation group Save Chelsea. 

"I wouldn't be surprised if they turn it into luxury condos."

Hoylman also had reservations about a potential sale of the complex.

"I would also be concerned about selling off state assets willy-nilly to luxury condominium development," he said.

For Hoylman, any closure plan would have to relocate inmates somewhere close to home. But the nearest facility in Taconic, where some Bayview prisoners already are housed, is roughly an hour away.

"That, I think, is crucial," he said.