Inside Camp Gabriels
Stec pushes for ammendment to allow sale of former prison
GABRIELS — As state Sen. Dan Stec walked through the crypt-like halls of the long-shuttered Camp Gabriels state prison on Tuesday, broken glass and paint flakes crunched beneath his shoes. His eyes scanned the sagging ceilings, graffitied walls and cluttered floors, but he spoke of a future where the large compound could be used again.
“I can picture a summer camp,” he said.
The state would need to pass a constitutional amendment first, though, since the property is arguably in the state Forest Preserve and cannot be sold. This amendment will take a long process and it has not gained enough traction in the Legislature since it was first proposed in 2016.
The former minimum security state prison has been empty since it closed in 2009. State efforts to sell it hit a snag years ago when environmental groups pointed out it is protected by Article 14 — the “Forever Wild” clause of the state constitution.
Stec, R-Queensbury, said he’s been one of the legislators trying to make an exception for Camp Gabriels for years, but he’s never been inside the compound himself. He said he ought to see the inside, so when people ask him about the property, he knows what he’s talking about — so he organized a tour for Tuesday.
“It’s got a lot of potential,” Franklin County Legislator Andrea Dumas said.
Dumas, who is also a member of Stec’s staff, said Camp Gabriels is within her county district, so she’s seen it before, but the property has gotten more run down since she last toured it.
Stec said if the buildings are already there, the state shouldn’t leave them to rot.
A return to an old prison
Jay Skiff, a corrections captain and the acting deputy superintendent at Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook, led Stec’s tour of the prison — he held the keys to the gate. He was an officer at Camp Gabriels for 12 years until 2009.
“I was here until the day we closed,” he said.
Skiff said it was strange to return on Tuesday. The facility where he used to work every day, once a familiar sight, is now grown over on the outside and decaying on the inside.
“It looks like the Blair Witch Project in there,” he said.
Skiff said at one point, Camp Gabriels had a large population of over 300 inmates. That was back when Rockefeller-era drug laws filled prisons and there were more people doing state time for having multiple driving while intoxicated offenses. He said these were all low-level, non-violent offenders.
“This was a very quiet facility,” Skiff said. “It was actually really enjoyable to work here.”
Because of their non-violent crimes, inmates were allowed by the state to be sent out on work crews. Skiff said they’d learn trades on public projects and help construct the Winter Carnival Ice Palace in Saranac Lake.
After drug laws loosened up, the prison’s population fell. When the prison closed in 2009, it had around 160 residents, he said.
Skiff thought the work program at Camp Gabriels was beneficial.
“It served a good purpose, with the work crews and everything,” he said. “They’re not just housing and warehousing inmates.”
There are 48 buildings spread out in the woods on 92 acres of land, including five open space housing units, a mess hall, a gymnasium and a chapel.
There’s a lot of infrastructure and utilities still there — a sewer plant, salt sheds, garages, six wells and an outdoor freezer. There’s also an overgrown baseball field.
But there’s been a decade’s worth of vandalism in the abandoned buildings — mostly broken windows and graffiti. Over time, all the doors have been broken open and they’re just left unlocked now.
There’s a gate at the entrance to keep vehicles out, but there’s no fence around the prison to stop urban explorers from walking in and entering the buildings. Skiff said when he worked there, Paul Smith’s College students hiking in the woods would sometimes accidentally wander into the prison.
Stec was impressed by how fast nature reclaimed the open spaces in 11 years. Where there used to be lawns, coniferous trees now grow 12 feet high. There were turkey tracks in the snow outside of the mess hall.
Inside, the buildings are in rough shape. In some buildings, the floors are coming up, the ceilings are caving in and in most, the humidity has peeled the paint off the walls.
But the foundations are solid, Skiff said.
The state Office of General Services has jurisdiction over the property, but Skiff said Adirondack Correctional in Ray Brook holds the keys.
Stec said this amendment is not at the top of Albany’s list, but he also felt it is not controversial. There’s no opposition from environmental groups that he knows of, and in the past, Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild have supported the sale of the property.
History of the land
The camp was build in 1897 as a tuberculosis sanatorium run by the Sisters of Mercy nuns. Article 14 was approved by New Yorkers in 1938.
In the years since, the camp changed hands and uses several times — geriatric care after World War II, and classroom and dormitory space for Paul Smith’s College in the ’60s and ’70s. These transactions were fine because it always remained in private ownership.
In 1982, the state turned the property into a minimum-security correctional facility, but since former Gov. David Paterson closed the prison in 2009, it’s remained empty.
Skiff said it closed as the state sought to cut costs. It was one of the first correctional facilities to close in New York.
The state OGS tried sell the property at auction twice in 2011, without any takers.
The land almost sold in 2014. Adam Fine, of Rockland County, was set to purchase the camp for $166,000 to be used as a summer camp for Orthodox Jewish boys. But the deal never closed because environmental advocates had said because the property was state land in the Adirondack Park, it defaulted to Forest Preserve when the prison closed.
Article 14 prohibits the state from selling Forest Preserve land. While the environmental groups said they’re not against the state selling this land, they wanted the state to go through the proper channels and get a constitutional amendment, suggesting they might sue if the state didn’t. They wanted to preserve the legal protection of Article 14.
This led the Jewish group trying to buy the land to back out, since it could not secure investors, who were concerned about the hold-up.
Annual amendment attempt
In 2016, after the Brighton Town Council pushed for a constitutional amendment, former state Sen. Betty Little proposed an amendment to alter Article 14 which would say Camp Gabriels “was not intended to be included in the Forest Preserve,” and because of the 48 structures build on it, the land was “not suitable for state Forest Preserve.”
This amendment failed to get final state legislative approval, and though it’s been introduced by North Country legislators in the Senate and Assembly every year since, it’s never passed both houses in successive sessions as it needed.
The property is currently assessed at $892,857, according to county property records.
Stec said the value of the land does not really matter. The goal isn’t for the state to make money by selling the property. He said the goal is to put the property to use. The property could be sold or even transferred to a non-profit organization.
“Leaving it here does nobody any good,” he said. “It’s only going to get worse.”
Passing a constitutional amendment is a long and arduous process. The amendment needs to be approved by both the state Senate and Assembly in two successive legislative sessions, and then needs to be approved by a majority of voters in New York in a ballot proposition.
An attempt to pass the constitutional amendment succeeded in the state Senate in the last legislative session, but it did not pass the Assembly, so the process will now start over again.
“We’ll try again next year,” Stec said.
The soonest the amendment could be on a ballot is November 2023.