Warwick historian presents lecture on Mid-Orange Correctional Facility

| 15 Feb 2012 | 09:36

Professor Richard Hull also sees many short- and long-term uses for the 772.5-acre property Warwick — The title of a recent lecture given by Warwick Historian Dr. Richard Hull was “Land of Dreams, imaginings and visions: A history of the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility site from the Indian era to the present.” It was a timely topic. This past June Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced that the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility in Warwick was on the list of seven prisons to be shut down this year to save the state money. And despite all efforts to rescind that order, the closure is final. On Wednesday evening, Sept. 28, Hull welcomed a large group who came to Warwick Town Hall to learn more about the history of the almost 800 acre site. Hull is the author of several books on local history and has served as professor of African history at New York University. He was also the recipient of the Orange County Revered Citizen Award, a United Nations Distinguished Citizen Award and a Fulbright Fellowship. In recent years Hull has also taught a graduate seminar at NYU. Earliest times He began his lecture describing the lives of nearby Wickham Lake’s earliest residents, the Lenape Indians, who were gone by the time Joseph Perry settled on its shores in the 1730s. Subsequent owners included John Wisner, William Wickham, Henry Wisner, his son Gabriel and his son Henry Board Wisner. In 1863 the Wisner family sold the farm to Thomas Durland. His descendents continued to farm the land until 1912 when it was sold to the City of New York for $75,000. Hull pointed out to his audience that translated into today’s dollar value, it was a princely sum at the time. The New York City Farm, as it was called, was intended to become a treatment center for alcoholism. The project failed, however, and the idea was abandoned with the advent of Prohibition. Hull explained that there was an interesting connection between Warwick and the City’s Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, formerly known as the Triboro Bridge. In 1929 New York City wanted state-owned Randall’s Island to construct a bridge that would join Manhattan with the Bronx and Queens. With then Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s support, New York State agreed to cede the island to the city in exchange for the Warwick property. And thus, it became the future site of the reformatory known as the New York State Training School for Boys at Warwick. In earlier years the reform school was a model institution that warranted visits by many dignitaries including President and Eleanor Roosevelt. “Community sustainability was an operational goal as the boys were given responsibilities working on a fully equipped state-of-the-art farm,” said Hull. He speculated that the well-run and self-sustaining farm, with its hay barns, milking parlors, chicken houses, greenhouses, silos, pigs, cattle and woodworking shop would have impressed the Wisners and Durlands of the past. Unfortunately, by the 1970s the farm program had ended and the courts were sentencing more serious offenders to the facility. “Recidivism,” said Hull, “proved to be an enduring and intractable problem.” In 1971 the Warwick reformatory was transferred from the Department of Social Services to the Division for Youth. And in 1976, after 44 years, the New York State Training School for Boys at Warwick was closed. Hull continued his lecture by describing how, in 1977, the vacant property and buildings became the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility. He went on to describe the early overcrowding, the innovative programs, community service performed by the inmates, a Life Skills program featuring local guest speakers and the final closing. “The future of this huge site,” said Hull, “will fundamentally shape the direction of our community for decades to come. And I have addressed you this evening not simply to enlighten you about this vitally important site but to spark a wider debate about its fate.” A historian’s view of the future Warwick — In response to a question from writer Roger Gavan about what he expects to happen at the 800-acre property, Dr. Richard Hull said: I think the state should not sell the facility but seek to lease it to a public or private entity or entities. Some of the buildings could be used to warehouse town, village or county equipment. Also, the burgeoning County Records/Archives office in Goshen is running out of space and could be moved to the site. The cultivated land could be used to grow food for our many public institutions including prisons and hospitals and for utilization by Cornell agricultural extension services as a model farm and for education. Some of the buildings could be leased to small manufacturers of green energy products like solar panels and modular structures. The wetlands should be placed under conservation covenants with the Orange County Land Trust, Inc., serving as steward. Then again, if the economy deteriorates further and joblessness grows we may need emergency housing... or even quarantine centers should we be faced with a pandemic. If there is social unrest, there might be a need for detention centers for rioters. The historic Manor House should come under state and federal Registers and be restored as a museum and documentation center. I might also add that the Mid-Orange site is in the immediate neighborhood of many hundreds of acres of already-protected prime farmland and wetland, including the Buckbee’s Bellvale Farms, the Mabee farm, the Wright Family farm, and the town park on the west shore of the lake. Together with the Mid-Orange site this is an area of incredibly rich biodiversity and is also a major component of our town’s watershed and key watercourses (Longhouse Creek, Wawayanda Creek etc.).” The future of this huge site will fundamentally shape the direction of our community for decades to come.” Warwick Historian Dr. Richard Hull about the site of the now-closed Mid-Orange Correctional Facility