DOCCS eyes expanding Ogdensburg prison garden before closure

The Ogdensburg Correctional Facility is one of six state prisons slated to close in March. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is working to expand a gardening program at Ogdensburg Correctional Facility that annually provides 22 tons of food to New York food banks as the prison prepares to close early next year.

Incarcerated men within Ogdensburg Correctional Facility — one of six state prisons scheduled to close March 31, 2022 — grow and harvest thousands of pounds of food from its on-site community garden through DOCCS’ Harvest Now program. The garden provided 40,000 pounds of produce to food pantries, senior citizens and other North Country communities in 2020.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday the Harvest Now on-site community gardening program at Ogdensburg Correctional Facility will not prevent the St. Lawrence County prison from closing March 31, 2022.

“I’m willing to look at how we can continue growing those crops and getting that food into food banks or replacing it somewhere else, but that should not be a reason to keep a facility open,” Hochul said Monday during an unrelated press conference in her Manhattan office. “We’re only closing six [prisons] at this time, but every one of them has less than half of the capacity that it was built for. And it’s a good thing that we have fewer people in prisons right now.”

State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision officials announced Nov. 8 six of the state’s 50 correctional facilities will close at the beginning of the spring, including Downstate Correctional, in Fishkill, Dutchess County; Ogdensburg Correctional, St. Lawrence County; Southport Correctional, Pine City, Chemung County; Rochester Correctional, Monroe County; Willard Drug Treatment Campus, Seneca County; and Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, in Mineville, Essex County.

“When the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility closes next March that Harvest Now program there will end, however, the Department is looking at expanding the gardening program at the nearby Riverview Correctional Facility,” DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said in a statement.

Riverview Correctional Facility is a medium-security all-male state prison facility, also located in Ogdensburg.

The Ogdensburg Correctional Facility Volunteer Garden Club donated 16,114 pounds of food to Ogdensburg area food banks within the past year, Mailey said.

Sixteen state correctional facilities participated in the Harvest Now program in 2021. The Willard Drug Treatment Campus also participated in this year’s Harvest Now program of the six prisons scheduled to close in the coming months.

DOCCS’ annual Harvest Now program donated more than 88,103 pounds statewide within six counties to date in 2021.

The Harvest Now organization provides seeds for free to correctional facilities that have pre-existing horticulture or agricultural programs, according to the department.

Late last week, Sen. Patricia Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, released an alternate plan for the medium-security male prison to operate as a transitional facility for incarcerated New Yorkers about to be released.

The senator cited the community garden, and her previous idea to triple the garden’s size to produce 120,000 pounds of food to be shipped to feed underserved downstate neighborhoods.

“As staff at the facility will tell you, those who are incarcerated find fulfillment in being part of the garden program, where they work alongside OCF employees to not just grow fresh produce, but also make a difference in the local community,” according to Ritchie’s statement detailing her alternate plan for the upstate prison. “Many of those incarcerated at OCF are from downstate. Involving more of them in the garden program and then in turn, sending the produce to the New York City area would provide them with the opportunity to help their own home communities. A model of mutual support from one end of New York state to the other.”

Hochul noted the negative economic impacts when closing a facility, but said she is looking for creative solutions about how to retrofit the former prisons, which remain state property, to be part of the local community.

“I’m looking for input from the communities on how they want to use that,” the governor said. “I’m happy to have conversations with Sen. Ritchie ... We can possibly look at that as another opportunity for using the facility for a different purpose for making sure that we don’t leave our food banks in trouble.”

The decision to close additional correctional facilities was based on the state’s continued decline in its incarcerated population, Mailey said.

The total incarcerated population in state correctional facilities is 30,973 people as of Monday, representing a reduction of more than 12,700 people since Jan. 1, 2020 and the state’s lowest total incarcerated population since 1984, according to DOCCS.

“DOCCS carefully reviewed the operations at its 50 correctional facilities for possible closure,” according to a statement from the department. “This review was based on a variety of factors, including physical infrastructure, program offerings, facility security level, specialized medical and mental health services, proximity of other facilities in the area to minimize the impact to staff, potential re-use options and areas of the state where prior closures have occurred in order to minimize the impact to communities. Consideration of the impact of the recently enacted HALT and Less Is More legislation was also weighed. As noted above, the Department is looking at expanding the gardening program at a facility nearby.”

The state’s current prison population reflects more than a 57% decline since its peak of 72,773 people behind bars in 1999.

Nourish New York, a state program that pays farmers for surplus crops and goods and transports it to food banks for hungry New Yorkers around the state, was created in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hochul signed legislation last month making Nourish New York permanent to use state resources to purchase items from local farmers for food banks.

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