In the Bronx, people who have recently been released from prison may soon voluntarily head to a (former) correctional facility. In January, the New York-based reentry services organization The Osborne Association took title to the building formerly known as Fulton Correctional Facility, which operated as a minimum security prison in the Bronx for four decades.
Irony isn’t new to the Fulton Avenue property, which began as an Episcopal church house in 1907 and became a Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA?) in the 1920s. But this latest transition is perhaps its greatest contradiction.
On the one hand, the reentry services that will be provided – including emergency and interim housing and workforce development – are desperately needed. Housing is a particular challenge in the Bronx because so many residents live in public housing and former prisoners are, by and large, banned from living there. Finding employment is also a struggle: the unemployment rate in the Bronx is a staggering 9.3%. By comparison, the national unemployment rate has returned to a pre-recession level of 5.5%, and the peak national unemployment rate during the recession was only slightly higher than what the Bronx is currently experiencing. Unsurprisingly, people who are reentering society are at a disadvantage both because of their criminal convictions and because of gaps in their employment history or a lack of transferrable job skills.
For those reasons, I want to be excited about this resource for Osborne. I have nothing but admiration for their work, and I’m optimistic that they’ll use the facility formerly known as Fulton in the best conceivable ways. But I can’t help but feel that the message being sent here is problematic – you’ve done your time, but the only place left for you – on the outside – is a prison; this cinderblock building full of cells and bars is literally an improvement on where you will end up without it (likely the streets).
My hesitation is reflected in the reaction of one former Fulton resident who attended the ceremony at which Osborne received the key to the building:
Stanley Richards stood hunched by a wall in a suit and tie, remembering his days as an involuntary resident of 1511 Fulton. “You see I’m sweating?” Mr. Richards said. “My gut is going up and down. When I walked in that door, I remembered when I first walked in that door, not knowing if I was coming back out.”
The idea of using a prison to house and train people getting out of prison reminds me of another repurposed facility from a different era. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, was a slave plantation (named for the country from which its slaves were taken) until the Civil War. Today it is the largest maximum security prison in the nation, with 6,300 prisoners and 1,800 staff members. It bears a striking resemblance to the slave plantation it once was, complete with working farm. It is a walking monument to the notion that mass incarceration is the latest edition of race-based oppression in the U.S.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll reiterate that I think Osborne is a terrific organization and that the work they are doing is sorely needed by formerly incarcerated people returning to the Bronx – I don’t think that they’re the next incarnation of Angola Prison. Osborne is hemmed in by limited resources, and taking advantage of what they can get. And perhaps there’s some kind of poetic justice here, people who encountered the brute force of mass incarceration rising like phoenixes from the ashes of a system that (in New York, at least) is declining. But I do think it’s troubling that the situation is so desperate that sending formerly incarcerated people back into a (former) prison is something advocates are excited about.
Life on the outside simply should not be so blatantly analogous to life on the inside. The ease with which they can be equated, like the connection between Angola as a slave plantation and as a prison, should be a cause for alarm.