Education and Incarceration in Chelsea - Orange Is The New Black Week


By Tanya Silverman

The Bayview Correctional Facility on West 20th Street and 11th Avenue in Manhattan. All photos by Tanya Silverman.

“When I talk about my work, people are often surprised to hear that there was a prison in the middle of Chelsea,” Madeleine George tells BTR. “But of course, everyone around it knew it was there.”

The prison that George discusses is Bayview Correctional Facility, a women’s institute that has been empty since it was evacuated during Hurricane Sandy last year where she once served as Site Director. The work that she speaks of is that of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers inmates the opportunity to earn liberal arts degrees from Bard College.

Located on the corner of West 20th Street and 11th Avenue in Manhattan, the building itself, an eight-story, 82-year-old, Art Deco structure, began as a YMCA for sailors. Active as a prison since 1970, luxury condos and posh galleries surround its present-day vicinity, not to mention the High-Line Park to the East and Chelsea Piers to the West (all attractive urban scenery that most people probably do not envision around a prison).

“There were some pretty amazing views of the Hudson River out of some of those women’s rooms – dazzling views!” says George, recalling an instance where the Bayview inmates were able to watch Sully Sullenberger’s famous 2009 landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the water. Today, though, the culmination of the empty space, prime location and lovely views has caused the former prison site to be a desired aspect for real estate developers.

“Now, it’s just a very coveted spot,” George realizes its vulnerability to transform into another condo or commercial space.

The view from the south of the building.

BPI began offering credited courses at Bayview in 2006. George directed the program, and also taught an introductory liberal arts “critical thinking bootcamp” a number of times. Additional participating professors would come to Bayview from Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, NYU, Hofstra, Leiman, and CUNY to teach assorted courses such as English Composition, Mathematics, History, Religion, Literature, Economics, and Science.

“This is the BPI brand: it’s a liberal arts education, rather than job training or interview preparation, which are more typically offered in the prison system,” says George. In terms of Bayview in particular, she adds that it was “very fortunate” to “offer college coursework in New York City” being an “international capital of academia.”

Since BPI’s college courses are credited, they have to be conducted at the same standard as at Bard College, and this academic criterion often entails more of a struggle for the students who did not have the same preparation as typical undergraduates coming from elite high schools.

“[BPI] students have to really work hard in order to be competitive with less background preparation,” says George. “But they can do it. This is the lesson of the program: that it’s absolutely within the realm of possibilities for those students to achieve, even at that elite level.”

Unlike traditional college freshmen in their late teens, students at Bayview ranged from ages 19-68, in which they were notably more mature, enthusiastic and appreciative of such educational opportunities (which is common in many BPI campuses). Several of the prisoners who participated in the Bayview BPI program then continued their education at colleges like Lehman, Queens College, Brooklyn College, and Virginia Tech. One woman who enrolled in the first Fall 2006 semester applied to Bard College, was accepted on a full scholarship and ended up graduating with a bachelor’s in Anthropology. Today, she works as a community director in Brownsville, the Brooklyn neighborhood where she was raised.

BPI was active at Bayview up until October 2012, when Sandy struck, and the prisoners were evacuated during the night of the storm. A rough time to move, they then spent the next few months transitioning through different places, unsure of where they would land.

During this period, seven students from Bayview were placed at Beacon Correctional Facility upstate, and although Beacon eventually closed for budgetary reasons, BPI still managed to complete the Fall 2012 semester — and even continue conducting classes for Spring 2013. These same seven students were then relocated to Taconic Correctional Facility in Westchester, where they continue their studies with BPI, and are even joined by additional classmates.

The front entrance to Bayview.

“There are now 36 women studying in total at Taconic,” says George, noting the benefit in having expanded the program to this bigger facility. “The more women we can reach, the better.”

Nevertheless, the closing of Bayview is still saddening to George, not because she wishes for the presence of many prisons, but because no female correctional facility exists within the five boroughts of NYC. She adds that it is also unfortunate because “women are typically visited less by their families than men who are in prison,” and now many of them are further from their loved ones.

She remembers the noticeable transformation of the area before Sandy:

“It was quite weird over the course of seven years to watch Chelsea change, literally, from inside the prison. You could look out through the windows and see the landscape turn into a very chic neighborhood – especially after the High Line opened.”

One metaphoric example she mentions is the “beautiful mural on the side [of Bayview] that was mostly obscured when the Nouvel building went up next to it.”

In a developmental limbo, some community members in Chelsea are pushing for things like historic preservation or affordable housing, but note that real estate interests likely have more profit driven desires.