Reimagining a county jail as affordable housing

For years, prisons and jails across the country and in New York have closed, prompting urban planners, government officials and community groups to reinvent spaces of confinement into solutions for housing, manufacturing and green space.

Locally, Ulster County is planning to transform its former county jail site into a new neighborhood of mixed-income, intergenerational and workforce housing.

The project aims to solve two issues: transfer a vacant building lingering on the county’s books as the prison population declines, while addressing the ever-increasing demand for affordable housing across the entire Hudson Valley.

“We’ve had the perfect storm around housing,” said Kevin O’Connor, CEO of Kingston-based RUPCO, a community organization that aims to make affordable housing accessible in Ulster County. “It’s created an absolute housing crisis.

“The phone rings every day at RUPCO,” he continued. “People are in desperate need of housing, and we have little to no resources.”

Neighborhood planned for Golden Hill

“To build housing in New York, and especially upstate New York, given all the challenges, we have to be really creative and innovative and finding sites we can repurpose,” said Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan. “We’re doing that in all different dimensions, including the project at our old jail.”

The county jail has been largely vacant for 15 years, since 2007. The county still has ownership of the former jail, which sits on top of Golden Hill in Kingston. 

The concept calls for 80 units of senior housing and 80 units of workforce housing that are affordable at a range of 30 to 130 percent of area median income. One-, two- and three-bedroom apartments will be available. The development will also include a community building, providing gathering and fitness space for residents and space for local organizations to offer services.

Philadelphia-based development team Pennrose will design, build and manage the project. They will work locally with Family of Woodstock and other community organizations to provide supportive services to future residents.

During the public engagement process for the development, some 45 area residents signed a petition and voiced concern about heavy traffic to the new development, which resulted in changing the entrance to the more favorable Route 32.

The developer is responsible for demolishing the old jail, which has not yet begun. Ryan said it could come this spring or summer, with construction to follow in early to mid-2023.

“I would encourage other communities and counties to look at large sites that the county or community might already have control or ownership over,” said Ryan. “That’s often one of the slow down points – acquiring land that’s suitable and the right size with the right infrastructure.”

Ulster’s former jail is located in the county’s biggest city and already has the infrastructure below ground in terms of water and sewer. Additionally, the site has easy road access and is located near the bus system and a major health facility. 

Ulster County prioritized its federal American Rescue Plan dollars to help support the project. Ryan said the county’s highly prioritizing affordable housing to ensure long-term residents aren’t pushed out.

“We’ve got jobs, but we’re not able to afford to live in the community where we grew up, have been for a while, or where our jobs are,” said Ryan. “I especially think about our frontline workers who risked their lives for us during the pandemic, and they’re increasingly being priced out of the same community that they risked their lives to protect.”


Green Thumb Industries CEO Ben Kovler speaks at the groundbreaking for a new cannabis cultivation and production facility at a former prison in Warwick on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. The Orange County site expands the company’s roster of 16 manufacturing facilities across 14 states. The Warwick site promises to bring at least 100 permanent jobs to the region.

Everett Collie

The incarceration rate in the U.S. fell in 2019 to its lowest level since 1995, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That year, fewer than 2.1 million people were behind bars — including about 735,000 in the custody of locally run jails.

New York in 2021 reported its lowest prison population since 1984, a decline by more than 50 percent since a peak in 1999. In November, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) announced that six New York prisons will close by March 10 this year, including the Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill.

Future plans have not yet been announced for the Fishkill facility. But elsewhere in the Hudson Valley, other creative re-use initiatives are being explored for former prisons:

Warwick: From prison to marijuana facility

What was once a medium-security prison that housed about 1,000 inmates in Warwick will become a fully operating cannabis cultivation and production facility by 2023.

Green Thumb Industries, a Chicago-based cannabis operator, began construction in September 2021 for a Hudson Valley facility at the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility site.

“It’s sort of a full circle moment,” said CEO and founder of Green Thumb Industries Ben Kovler. “The whole concept of the cannabis business built on top of doing what we’re doing for gainful employment does not make a lot of sense,” he explained, given the country’s historic criminalization of marijuana.

“The fact [that] there are still people in jail across the nation is a problem.” Kolver said that Green Thumb wants to continue to employ people who have been incarcerated, as they have done at other facilities.

The Shawangunks: From prison farm to possible recreation space

The future of the former state prison dairy farm in the Catskill-Shawangunk region once operated by Eastern Correctional Facility and still owned by DOCCS, is also being explored.

Local farmer John Adams is leading a grassroots effort to reclaim the 500-acre parcel as mixed-use outdoor recreation space, leveraging its prime location near the Catskills and Minnewaska State Park.

So far DOCCS hasn’t been convinced to change how the land is used or give it up. New York State Assemblyman Brian Miller, who grew up on a pick-your-own apple farm and believes in the benefits of agritourism, said more discussions are needed before a decision is made on what to do with the land.

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