Pleas for a Prison

Harlem activists fight to keep Parkside open

Harlem residents might have been expected to cheer when they learned of Governor George Pataki's plans to close a local prison. Instead, some got mad. Stepping up to the microphone at a recent community meeting, Gwen Bowen blasted the proposed shutdown of Parkside Correctional Facility, which is at the corner of West 121st Street and Mount Morris Park West in Harlem. "I don't know anybody who doesn't have a husband, friend, father, sister, brother, or cousin who has been incarcerated," says Bowen, a real estate agent who chairs the prison's citizen advisory board. "They are our families and they're from our community. To have them be pushed out of their community just isn't fair."

Such outcry is extremely unusual. While most New Yorkers would protest loudly if a jail opened on their block, a few dozen Harlem residents are actually fighting to keep this women's prison, which opened in 1975. There are seven state prisons in New York City, and Parkside is the primary work-release facility for women. Inmates come to Parkside as they near the end of their sentences, and the facility eases their transition out of prison by helping them land jobs. Some of Parkside's 130 inmates live at home and check in every day, while others sleep at the prison two days a week, and still others are locked in every night.

The state budget Pataki proposed earlier this year claims that closing Parkside would save an estimated $1.5 million. According to the state's Department of Correctional Services, Parkside is no longer needed, largely because Pataki barred violent offenders from the state's work-release program in 1995. The total number of participants shrunk from 6300 in 1994 to 2900 today. Among women, the numbers plunged from 630 to 385.

Parkside's fate rests with the outcome of the state's ongoing budget negotiations. In the interim, some Harlem activists are making a last-ditch effort to save the prison by lobbying politicians and collecting petitions. This group, which calls itself the Committee to Stop the Closing of Parkside, includes employees of the prison as well as local residents. For years, inmates have raked and picked up trash in the park across the street from the prison. "If it hadn't been for them, Marcus Garvey Park would be down the tubes today," says Ethel Bates, the coordinator of Marcus Garvey Park Conservancy, who is helping lead the push to keep Parkside open. "The city owes them a lot."

When members of the group trying to save Parkside talk about their motives, they sometimes sound like the residents of towns in upstate New York, who regularly lobby for new prisons. Prison employees and inmates "give a lot back to the community," says Elsie Brooks, who manages Paris Blues, a local bar. "They use restaurants, beauty salons, pharmacies. A lot of the businesses they put money back into are black owned and Hispanic owned." According to Parkside's supporters, the prison injects more than $500,000 a year into Harlem's economy.

The Guardians Association— an African American group that represents correction officers and others in law enforcement— is fighting to keep Parkside open, even though state corrections officials have promised there will be no layoffs. Statistics compiled last year by the Department of Correctional Services show that fewer than 2 percent of guards at New York's state prisons are nonwhite. But at Parkside, all 15 guards are African American or Hispanic, according to the Guardians.

"The bulk of our people go to prison, but the bulk of the jobs go to white people," says Shirley Phipps, the group's spokesperson. "They've been profiting off our sons and brothers and fathers for years. We have to keep the revenues in our community."

Not everyone in central Harlem is upset about Parkside's proposed closing, however. Peggy Toone, president of the 121st Street Block Association, says she does not oppose Parkside's programs— just its location. When Toone moved into a spacious brownstone a few doors down from the prison 20 years ago, her block was mostly rooming houses and vacant buildings. Today, most of those properties have been converted into one- or two-family homes. While the value of her house has soared, she says, many problems with the prison have persisted.

Toone's list of complaints includes inmates shouting to their boyfriends from the prison's windows, guards taking all the parking spaces on the street, and a prisoner stashing drugs in a neighbor's flowerpot. "It's not a matter of people not being empathetic and caring," says Toone, an entrepreneur and artist. "What we've endured would not be tolerated in other places. It's like we're living in a prison camp."

Harlem assemblyman Keith Wright also supports Parkside's shutdown. "There were some alleged acts of prostitution being performed," says Wright, a Democrat who sits on the assembly's corrections committee. "People just don't like seeing that in the morning, especially when they're taking their kids to school."

Inside Parkside, some people wonder what will happen if the prison closes. Many inmates will wind up at the city's only other prison for women, Bayview Correctional Facility, located across from Chelsea Piers. Bayview is expected to expand its work-release program, but Luz Santana worries that the total number of female inmates who can participate in work-release may drop even further.

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