What NYC lost when it lost a prison

Russelle Miller-Hill was convicted on a drug charge and sent to Albion Correctional Facility in 1991.

Born and raised in the Bronx, the prison near Niagara Falls was far from home, and she says she got no visitors.

Towards the end of her term, she went down to New York City to spend about 18 months at Bayview Correctional Facility, she says.

You were “on your way out the door,” says Miller-Hill. “You were home basically.”

She was given medical furlough and allowed to return to her actual home on weekends, rekindling a relationship with her daughter and spending time with her family — eating meals together, going for walks in Central Park. Sunday night, she’d head back to Bayview.

Miller-Hill is one inmate who benefited from proximity to support networks and familiar territory, and an example of the importance of where we put our prisons — in this case, right in the middle of one of NYC’s toniest neighborhoods, Chelsea.

The facility, perched between Chelsea Piers and the Highline on 20th Street, closed in 2013, leaving just one state-run correctional facility housing women in NYC.

Calm on the outside, horrific on the inside

The Bayview building has had a long and varied history in Chelsea. Originally known as Seaman’s House YMCA, a refuge for sailors, the complex was sold to the state in 1967. It became a medium-security prison in 1974.

The facility carried markers of its origins: a drained swimming pool decorated with fish mosaics, a small chapel. On the rooftop rec yard, inmates were provided with a view of the Hudson River and the changing neighborhood below them.

At first, some residents worried the inmates would present a danger to the neighborhood, says Pamela Wolff, a longtime resident who served on the community board. Chelsea residents formed a committee that met once a month at the facility to discuss concerns. It lasted for little more than a year, Wolff said. “It became obvious that there really was no issue — no criminal activity, no mugging.” Ultimately the committee was dissolved.

Wolf says the women heading to jobs or going home on weekend passes “became invisible.”

“They weren’t wearing badges. They looked like everybody else.”

Inside, however, the prison was troubled.

It was “horrific,” says Miller-Hill, the woman who spent time at Bayview. “We were not addressed as our names, we were numbers,” she says.

The gynecological needs of the women were not addressed well — women were required to turn in their used sanitary napkins to prove they needed more, according to a 2015 overview of prison reproductive health care from the Correctional Association of New York, an advocacy organization.

A 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that Bayview had the highest rate of staff sexual misconduct of all prisons surveyed nationwide.

In 2012, flooding from Superstorm Sandy rendered the building uninhabitable, and all 160 inmates were transferred to other prisons. In 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo officially closed the then-empty prison, one of 13 prisons Cuomo has closed or prepped for closure.

A spokesman for the governor says the prison was closed not because of Sandy, but “due to a low female prison population at that facility.”

Being close to home matters to prisoners

The women who had been at Bayview were transferred to Westchester or Dutchess Counties — still relatively close for visits, but not nearly as well-placed for work-release programs or maintaining relations with family and communities.

The old Bayview facility is in the process of transformation into a “Women’s Building,” an architect for which will be announced next week. According to the foundation running the refurbishment, it may include an atrium, art gallery, restaurant/cafe, as well as childcare facilities and space for female-focused activists and organizations.

These possibilities may be worthy, and will fit right in in Chelsea. It’s not exactly surprising that the state wanted to cash in on some prime property, and close what had become a dysfunctional prison.

But there were benefits to a prison being right in the community it was serving, and not hidden out of sight upstate (two-thirds of the inmates were from the city and suburbs, according to the Correctional Association). Proximity made lives of inmates much improved.

Miller-Hill says she was able to mend her relationship with her daughter, who had become distant during years of drug addiction and time upstate. She began changing things while at Bayview, though it was a long road.

“When a woman goes to state correctional facility, she’s not doing time by herself,” she says. “Her whole entire family does her time with her.”

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