Looking for a vacation home? This property in upstate New York, near the Adirondack mountains, boasts 99 acres, incredible views, 98,000 square feet of living space, and sleeps 250. The only catch – it’s a prison.
Well, former prison. After a series of legal reforms, New York reduced its inmate population so much that it’s had to close over a dozen prisons, and they’re now on the auction block. Only one has been successfully repurposed so far; the former Mid-Orange Correctional Facility is now the Warwick Valley Office Park. (The hyper-irony of having a miserable, fluorescent-lit cubicle job in what used to be a literal prison is peak America.) Across the country, it’s become increasingly common for former prisons to hit the real estate market, as the wave of for-profit incarceration that goosed rural economies across America over the last couple decades (at the mere cost of our collective conscience) has finally started to recede.
In Brush, Colorado, a man bought the former High Plains Correction Facility (22.5 acres, 5000 square feet of indoor space) in 2014 for only $150,000, with plans to turn it into a pot farm. Unfortunately, the local City Council didn’t like the idea, and voted to keep a moratorium in place banning pot businesses in the county. The last anyone heard out of Brush, the prison was back on the market – this time for either $1.2 million in cash, for 88 bitcoin.
Locally, one of the happier prison rehab stories is in Lorton, VA. The Lorton Reformatory was built in 1910 as a workhouse, where prisoners spent their sentences working for free. (Even back then, prisons were basically for profit.) The Reformatory became notorious after an incident in 1917 called “The Night of Terror” involving women’s suffrage protestors. A group of women known as the “Silent Sentinels” had stood outside the White House for six months, demanding the right to vote. When they were finally arrested, they were taken to Lorton Reformatory, where they were reportedly beaten and chained to their beds; one of the protesters, a 74 year old woman, was stabbed with the broken picket from her protest sign.
Lorton Reformatory continued as a maximum security prison until it closed in 2001, and is now a residential compound. The 165 apartments there rent for $1,100 to $2,400, and the prison’s communal areas have been turned into commercial space. What is it like? Well, it looks like a prison. Though the buildings have been exhaustively renovated, the brick walls and the barred windows are still there, giving the place a distinctly penal vibe. And as to all the horrible stuff that’s taken place there over the years? According to one security guard who works there, yes, it’s haunted. Even if he was just pulling the reporter’s leg, the fact that it’s a plausible joke points out how difficult it can be to sell or repurpose these prisons – even when, in a previous life, they used to be luxury resorts.
In New York, the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility closed in 2014 after almost 40 years as a prison. (It was nicknamed “Camp Walkaway” because so many prisoners escaped.) McGregor is on top of a forest-covered mountain in Saratoga County, adjacent to a state park; one potential investor observed that it had the makings of a world-class golf course if the buildings were removed. The idyllic compound experienced a steady decline in status through the 20th century; before it was a prison, it was a state school, and before that it was a sanitorium for tuberculosis patients. But before all that, it was a luxury resort, the site of the sumptuous Hotel Balmoral, one of the finest hotels on the east coast. (It burned down in 1897.)
The site is just as beautiful today as it ever was, and a lot more accessible – the only way to get to the hotel in the 19th century was by railway – but investors have been hard to attract. Maybe they’re scared of ghosts, or maybe there’s another reason. Conspiracy theorists think the government has earmarked McGregor as a prison to use in case of civil unrest or a disease outbreak. Well, if you have to go to a government prison camp, I guess this one has pretty stellar views.