Converting closed prisons a protracted process in Pennsylvania |
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Deb Erdley
The visitation area at State Correctional Institute Cresson, in Cambria County, as seen on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

On the surface, a luxury hotel in Boston, a sustainable agriculture center in rural North Carolina and a West Virginia historic events center share little in common.

But, in these cases, they all grew from the shells of former prisons.

They also represent examples of what could be for communities as states downsize prison operations, said Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice think tank.

It’s a long way to “could be,” however.

In Western Pennsylvania, where the state closed two huge prisons in 2013, many worry and wonder what will become of the vacant facilities.

A Carlisle businessman who purchased SCI Greensburg in 2015 hopes to transform the former 960-bed prison and its 96 acres into Greensburg Veterans Sunrise Center, a proposed $150 million transition campus and rehabilitation center.

Congressman Tim Murphy, whose district includes the Greensburg facility, said the proposal holds promise.

“The proposed Veterans Sunrise Center is only in the early development phase, but I’m interested in learning more because we need more services for veterans in Westmoreland County, and this full-service veterans’ transition campus could be a big win for our vets,” the Upper St. Clair Republican said.

About 60 miles east in Cambria County, another opportunity exists at SCI Cresson — a former 1,600-bed prison on 326 forested acres atop an isolated mountain that has been on the market for three years.

The Pennsylvania Department of General Services recently dropped the minimum bid for the sprawling complex to $500,000 after receiving no responses at $730,000. Bids will be accepted until Dec. 13.

The Department of Corrections turned off the heat in Cresson’s 40 buildings — structures that are often encased in snow and ice when howling winter winds envelope Cresson Mountain.

The prison opened in 1987 on the grounds of the former Cresson Tuberculosis Sanatorium, a facility that dates to 1916.

Cell blocks range from crumbling, temporary dormitories to J Block — a solid brick, 256-cell facility built in 2006 for $8.6 million.

The grounds include a century-old, elegant stone-and-timber administration building that once was used to house healthy children whose parents were hospitalized at the sanatorium. Also standing is Grace Chapel, a well-kept stone church that dates to 1916.

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria County, said he learned about the prison’s closing from the news.

“We lost 500 family-sustaining jobs overnight,” he said. “We’d like to see somebody come in, buy it and pay taxes. But we realize the possibility of one company coming in with 500 jobs is slim.”

The cost of just demolishing buildings would be $15 million, Burns said.

This year, the state signed over nearly 100 acres of the original 425-acre Cresson site to the county redevelopment authority. Local officials are attempting to lure a natural-gas power plant to the site, Burns said.

But nothing about this has been easy, he added.

Cell block rebirth

Even where prisons have found new life, it has taken a combination of determination and innovation.

In 1990, Boston closed its infamous Charles Street Prison, which was built in 1851. Now it is the luxurious, 300-room Liberty Hotel.

Massachusetts General Hospital, which purchased the property, cast about for a new use and oversaw the $150 million renovation.

In Gainesville, Fla., a college town of about 125,000, the city and county joined with a local nonprofit to open GRACE Marketplace after the state closed a 410-bed prison in 2012. The new facility is a one-stop shop for the homeless, providing a shelter and service center, Gainesville spokesman Bob Woods said.

The 1876 West Virginia State Penitentiary, in the hands of the Moundsville Economic Development Council, is an event center and tourist attraction that hosts everything from overnight paranormal investigations to reunions, birthday parties and law enforcement training exercises.

And in rural Wagram, N.C., the nonprofit that serves troubled youth is finalizing a pilot project that taps expertise from eight state universities to turn the former Scotland Correctional Facility, a 100-bed prison field camp, into a sustainable farm, complete with a virtual history program at the prison that once housed inmates who built state roads.

Porter, of the Sentencing Project, said it takes careful planning and community engagement to decide the best use for such facilities. She said New York state, which has closed 13 prisons since 2011, has been a leader in community outreach and planning.

State officials hold planning meetings with the community, engage planners, publish reuse plans and make money available for renovations through an economic transformation program.

“Our goal is to find the best plans for these sites that will promote re-use and mitigate the economic impact of a closure,” said Adam Ostrowski, a spokesman for the Empire State Development Fund.

The process has yielded The Women’s Building — a center for girls’ and women’s rights groups in former Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan.

The revamped facility, which is slated to open in December, will include a restaurant, art gallery and office space for technology and innovation tenants.

Despite such high-profile successes, the process has been slow. Only four of New York’s 13 shuttered prisons have been sold; another was transferred to a nonprofit.

There’s not a luxury hotel in sight — neither at those former prisons nor on Cresson Mountain.

Even so, Burns said he will try to stay upbeat about the possibility that something good can come of it for the residents of his rural district.

“But all the state does is list it on a website. Our laws don’t allow us to spend to shop this nationwide,” Burns said. “It seems like the state is just willing to walk away from this and let it sit for years.”

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].

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