In 2015, Tracy Huling, creator of the Yes, In My Backyard website, interviewed Elizabeth Gaynes, Director of the Osborne Association in New York City, who is managing a fascinating prison reuse project in the South Bronx.
TH: First, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and the Osborne Association?
EG: I was in law school in upstate New York in 1971 when the Attica uprising happened, pulling me toward an unplanned career in prisoners’ rights law. However, after several years representing people incarcerated in New York prisons, I came to believe that legal representation – although very important – was not having the impact on people’s lives that I wanted. And I was watching an unbridled increase in the prison population that did not reflect an increase in crime, but in punitive policies.
And I thought that the Osborne Association – where I landed more than 30 years ago – had a better chance of changing the trajectory of people’s lives and of the conversation about the human and economic costs of crime and the criminal justice system. Osborne, founded by the great prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne after serving as warden of Sing Sing prison 100 years ago, has grown to provide a wide range of treatment, family, educational and vocational services to divert people from incarceration, offer transformational programs during incarceration, and provide reentry support upon release. We also serve and support the children and families of people caught up in the criminal justice system.
TH: Where did you get the idea to repurpose the Fulton Prison and how did you decide what to do with it?
EG: Osborne programs have long operated in many New York State prisons, including Fulton and other work release facilities in New York City. At the same time that crime and the prison population were going down, New York began increasing restrictions on who would be eligible for work release – a terrific program that enables people to maintain employment while serving a sentence, adjust to their families and community and earn money that will be needed to reestablish themselves post-release. I sadly watched the population of Fulton and other work release facilities go down due to eligibility restrictions – so that those who would most benefit from the program, particularly those who had been incarcerated for many years – were unable to access the program.
As talk increased about the drop in crime and prison population, and the likelihood that the state could and would close some prisons, I realized that Fulton would probably be on the list. But I thought a kind of “post-release” work release program would be a good use of the building, and that services for people leaving prison would likely be acceptable in a community that had lived with a prison for 35 years. Because Osborne provides discharge planning and post-release treatment and vocational and family services to so many people leaving prison and jail, we had a pretty good idea about what was needed.
TH: What kind of assistance did the federal government and or the State of New York provide, if any? What kind of assistance did New York City and/or Bronx County provide?
EG: When deciding to close prisons, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo created a $50 million Prison Transformation Fund within the state’s Empire State Development Corporation, that could be accessed by those with viable plans for acquiring the sites of the closed prisons.
We advocated with the Governor’s office and the local elected officials to get the state to turn over the facility at no cost to us, and we applied for funding from ESDC for the redevelopment of the site as a community reentry center. We received a letter of support for our proposed plan signed by every elected official in the Bronx, including City Council, State Senate and the Assembly.
We submitted tentative plans for the reuse, to include transitional residential capacity, and workforce development services. Since the Governor’s goal was, to the extent possible, to replace jobs lost when a prison is closed, we are focused on programs that would create as many new jobs as possible. In order to access the ESDC funding of $6 million, we needed to raise a 10 per cent match; the Bronx Borough President agreed to capital funding of $657,000.
TH: What kind of planning process, if any, are you using? How is the surrounding community involved, if at all?
EG: Our goal from the beginning has been for the site to house multiple providers of an array of fully coordinated services. We worked with LISC to design and deliver a community visioning process, including a series of workshops for a wide range of stakeholders, including our immediate neighbors in Bronx Community District 3 as well as a range of nonprofit, business and government agencies interested in the project.
The LISC technical assistance has provided data and asset mapping and the results of the visioning process to be sure that we are taking into account the expressed needs and desires of the community, to the degree possible.
TH: What have been the biggest challenges in this Project so far?
Surprisingly, the biggest challenges were not getting the State to give us the building, or getting the support of the community, because we went about it in a well- organized way. It did take a very long time, and getting capital funding was challenging because we had to invest quite a bit in the planning process.
Now the challenge is that while we have considerable capital funding, we have zero operating funds. And because we want to engage multiple providers, each of them has to have the financial capacity and the willingness to be part of a collaborative process and service delivery program with shared space that hasn’t been done before. And the redevelopment has to begin before the occupants are decided, so we need to design flexible, affordable space before we are sure how the programs are funded.
It is particularly challenging because we want to provide transitional housing for people until they can reunite with families or find permanent housing, but New York has no funding stream for transitional housing so we need to solve that problem.
TH: What resources (programs, agencies, processes, people, funding streams, etc.) have been the most helpful so far and how?
EG: First and foremost is our Board of Directors, who were willing to take a risk on a project that has many moving parts and no assurance of success. Our staff and program participants have all shared their time and thinking and we have produced an exciting plan. The Borough President, the current and previous State Senator, our Assembly member, Community Board, and City Council member (and the Bronx council delegation) have all been helpful and supportive. New York Community Trust funded a project manager, and we just received an additional $3 million in capital funding in the state budget that should enable us to get the renovations and repurposing fully in gear.
Because occupancy is 18 months away, it is difficult to identify funding and programs that will be available then, but community and government partners have all been thoughtful and generous.
TH: What is the current status of the Project? What are the next steps?
EG: We have retained a construction management firm and are in the process of retaining an architectural firm to design the future of Fulton. We have to come up with a name, a development plan, pull permits and hire a contractor who will hire our participants/people with criminal records. And we have to raise operating funds for programs consistent with the expressed needs and desires of the community and the future participants – to the degree that one building can accomplish that.
TH: What is the one most valuable piece of advice you have for others attempting to do something similar?
EG: If by “similar,” you mean re-developing an empty prison, that is going to depend on where it is and what the local work force can do. If I were trying to re-purpose an upstate rural prison, I would have suggested raising medical marijuana, because you can’t do a reentry center in a place where no one is returning so you should probably look at manufacturing or agriculture.
On the other hand, if you mean someone attempting to develop a community reentry center, you have to manage expectations, and not promise more than you can deliver. We should respect the desire of people not to overload their community with “services” that are not really integrated with and co-created by the community.
We have found the people of the Bronx understand that we aren’t talking about importing Martians, but are planning to serve the sons and daughters of their community, a community deeply affected by over-policing, exposure to violence, and hyper-incarceration. Trust the people. And be trustworthy: more than anything else: do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it.