In the Bronx, New Life for an Old Prison

In the Bronx, New Life for an Old Prison

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Across from Crotona Park in the Claremont section of the Bronx, an old faded brick building has undergone a lot of changes since the turn of the century. The structure at 1511 Fulton Avenue has an indistinct appearance that doesn’t give away the dwelling’s diverse history, which dates back to the turn of the century.

Over time the building served the needs of community trends and demographics of the neighborhood.   

In 1907 an Episcopal church was the initial occupant of the long-standing brick building. Beginning in the 1920s, for the next three decades, a Young Men’s Hebrew Association with a synagogue on the first floor occupied the building. By the 50s, the building went from a Jewish fellowship hall to a nursing home. Eventually, the facility was converted into a drug treatment center.

The past four years, the building sat empty — remembered for the last four decades as the Fulton Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison, until four years ago when Governor Cuomo’s administration closed the institution along with twelve other facilities because of a significant decrease in the state’s inmate population.     

When Fulton Correctional Facility was in full swing, the dwelling housed up to 900 inmates on work release until the state of New York’s inmate population went from nearly 73,000 in 1999 to 54,000 in 2012.

2015 is a new dawn for the Bronx neighborhood building. Evolving with the needs of the city, the latest project for the building is a community re-entry center, projected to provide temporary housing and job training for inmates returning to society.

Thanks to a $6 million state grant created exclusively for neighborhoods with empty buildings where prisons once stood, the Osborne Association, an 82-year-old prison reform group, is renovating the old building. 

On January 28, 2015, the executive director of the Osborne Association, Elizabeth Gaynes, was presented with a deed and keys to the building. She has been the driving force behind using the abandoned building as a reentry center and is grateful to be awarded with a phenomenal opportunity.

The renovation will be a daunting project, but it will momentously improve the community and surrounding New York City areas.

Dirt-caked windows that haven’t seen a Windex bottle for four years are waiting to be visible to the outside world. Cold metal toilets locked to gray cinderblock walls that barrier the abandoned cubicle prison cells will be removed.

The building at 1511 Fulton is being restored to an extraordinary landmark because it is the first converted prison to become a versatile re-entry center. Now that the four-decade incarceration campaign is finally getting under control, other communities across America were challenged with what to do with abandoned prisons. Modifications have ranged from hotels to homeless shelters, a cemetery, and summer camp to even a movie studio. 

The building will be refurbished to meet a variety of reentry needs for inmates returning to their families and communities. The facility will accommodate 60 to 70 reentering inmates. Businesses will be supplied by the center to replace jobs lost before the prison closed. Catering, furniture restoration, roofing, and bee-keeping businesses will host onsite training.

Housing and employment amenities will be extremely valuable resources for ex-inmates because the Bronx had the highest unemployment rate in the state, and housing is a major dilemma. Even though the Fulton area has one of the largest concentrations of public housing units in New York City, the legislation prohibits individuals with a criminal record from obtaining public housing. 

Stanley Richards, a 54-year-old former inmate at Fulton Correctional Facility, hopes the newly released inmates will embrace a fortunate future he almost missed.

Richard went from a $5.00 an-hour job as a telemarketer job through the work release program at Fulton in 1991, commuting to Manhattan and sharing a cell with seven other inmates to supporting his wife and four children as senior vice president of the Fortune Society, which helps former prisoners adapt to the outside world.   

Richards understands how the success of released inmates making their lives work in the real world depends on employment and housing. He believes the reentry center offers hopeful possibilities for released inmates because the potential they see is the first step in realizing they have a second chance.