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Once a public school, the Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility operated from 1984 until 2011.  Now it's up for sale. Photo: New York state
Once a public school, the Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility operated from 1984 until 2011. Now it's up for sale. Photo: New York state

Want to buy a North Country prison? Bargain basement prices!

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What happens to prisons and correctional facilities when there aren't enough inmates to fill the jail cells?

That's the dilemma facing nearly a dozen communities in upstate New York. After a massive prison construction boom that continued for nearly four decades, the state has seen its inmate population decline steadily in recent years. The change follows a sharp decline in crime rates and changes to sentencing guidelines that mean fewer nonviolent drug offenders spending years behind bars.

Now a state agency called Empire State Development is struggling to auction off eleven former prisons and juvenile justice centers, including two facilities now for sale here in the North Country.

But many rural communities fear that another economic engine is dying with nothing to replace it.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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The iron mine in Lyon Mountain closed for good in 1968.  Now the prison has closed, too. Photo: Brian Mann
The iron mine in Lyon Mountain closed for good in 1968. Now the prison has closed, too. Photo: Brian Mann
Walking through the ruins of the old iron mine in Lyon Mountain and you'll see the massive tailings pile on one side. On the other side sits a beautiful, abandoned brick building.

The mine closed down in 1968 and like a lot of small towns across the US, Lyon Mountain turned to a new industry to feed its prosperity: incarceration.

"This was the vocational building, where the law library was, and the church, the Mosque, all that," says Mark Siskavitch.

Mark Siskavitch was a corrections office for more than a decade.  He went to school in the building where he later worked as a guard. Photo:  Brian Mann
Mark Siskavitch was a corrections office for more than a decade. He went to school in the building where he later worked as a guard. Photo: Brian Mann
He worked here at Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility for a decade, until the prison – like the mine – closed its doors in 2011

He works now as town highway superintendent and, like a lot of local people, Siskavitch doubts there's any real use for the prison.

"If they're going to try to sell this thing, I wish them all the luck," he says. "But I don't see that happening. I don't see another use for it."

This tension is part of a long and difficult history for rural upstate towns that have struggled to reinvent themselves, as factories and farms and mines closed down.

For a long time, it seemed like prisons might be a recession proof industry, respectable work with good middle class salaries.

Then inmate populations began to drop and state officials like Governor Andrew Cuomo began to question the cost and the morality of using correctional facilities as an economic engine.

"If people need jobs, let's get people jobs," Cuomo argued. "Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs."

Local leaders fought back, struggling to prevent the closure of prisons. North Country assemblywoman Janet Duprey spoke at a rally in Lyon Mountain in 2010 just before the prison here shut down.

"We've given enough," she said. "The North Country has given too much, leaving us with empty buildings, and taking away our jobs."

But there are fewer inmates every year – three thousand fewer this year alone. And New York state has also faced painful budget deficits, adding new incentive to close partially-empty facilities.

There are now 11 prison and juvenile justice centers sitting empty, with two more correctional facilities slated to close this year.

Prisons for sale. As two more prisons close down, there a dozen corrections and juvenile justice facilities in NY will be mothballed or up for sale. Photo: Brian Mann
Prisons for sale. As two more prisons close down, there a dozen corrections and juvenile justice facilities in NY will be mothballed or up for sale. Photo: Brian Mann
Kevin Younis is deputy commissioner of Empire State Development, the agency charged with marketing this real estate.

"Our goal is to find the best plans for these sites that will promote reuse and mitigate the economic impacts of closures on those communities," he said.

State officials produced a series of marketing videos designed to convince private buyers that these prisons are a good investment.

State officials say some facilities have sold – in Fulton and Orange County —though most have been transferred at low cost to towns or counties, not to private companies.

Younis says the state tries to work closely with local leaders to find the best possible reuse.

The minimum bid for Camp Georgetown's buildings and 31 acres of land is just $90,000
"We've done dozens of meetings with businesses, local leaders and other stakeholders to find uses for these facilities that will ultimately benefit the communities."

But the state's marketing and management of former prisons has angered some local leaders.

In 2011, the town of Brighton – which includes the 92 acre Camp Gabriels site – rejected a proposal that local taxpayers take over and manage the property.

At a contentious meeting, Brian McDonnell blasted the state for its handling of Camp Gabriels. "The buildings haven't been opened since the place was closed up," he said, observing that black mold had infested some areas.

"The state didn't do us any favors by just closing everything up."

Brighton town supervisor Peter Shrope points out that the Camp Gabriels site has been on the market for years without a single serious offer.

"It kind of had two auction deadlines, both of which didn't receive any bids," he said.

For many people in these small North Country towns, the closure of the local prisons is only the latest twist in a long downward spiral. Bill LaDuke lives across the street from Lyon Mountain Correctional Facility.

He was born and raised here and stands raking leaves in his front yard. "My father was an employee for Republic Steel for 32 years. It was a great place to grow up."

LaDuke says he'd love to see a microbrewery or some other kind of light industry move in to the shuttered buildings. But when I ask him the odds of that happening, he shakes his head.

"In this economy? Not great."

A lot of people here fear that decades from now, the ruins of the prison will join the ruin of the old iron mine, another relic of a fading industry.

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Community Trust. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org. 

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