Camp Gabriels amendment passes Senate again

Assembly to potentially vote soon, would need to pass both houses again before public vote

State Sen. Dan Stec, center, takes a tour of the paint-peeling remains of Camp Gabriels in 2021 — a minimum-security prison that the state closed in 2009. At left is Steve Crozzoli, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. At right is DOCCS Capt. Jay Skiff. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

GABRIELS — A constitutional amendment to allow the sale of the abandoned Camp Gabriels state prison in Brighton took the first step in a long journey for the fifth time with the state Senate’s passage of local Sen. Dan Stec’s bill on Wednesday.

The amendment to grant an exception to the long-vacant campus, which currently cannot be sold because it is part of the state Forest Preserve, has been pitched annually and has reached this point of the journey several times before. But it’s never made the next step of passing in the Assembly.

A constitutional amendment is a long process. It requires passage by both state houses in two successive legislative sessions before it can be presented to New York voters on a ballot to approve or deny.

Local Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, has sponsored the bill in the Assembly, and though there are less than two weeks left in the legislative session, he said he’s “confident” he can get it to pass.

Stec, R-Queensbury, said this is the fourth consecutive year his legislation has passed the Senate — this time with unanimous “aye” votes in all committees and on the floor.

He’s very hopeful it can pass the Assembly. If it passes this year, it can potentially be included on the November 2025 ballot. But if it doesn’t pass this year, and the process restarts next year, the earliest it could be on the ballot would be 2027, because of the rule that an amendment must be passed by two successive legislatures.

“I am confident that something will get through this session,” Jones said, adding that he’s been working on it.

The hangup has been that legislators are concerned about what the property would be used for if sold, Jones said. He said his colleagues want to be confident there will be a necessity and a use for it when the amendment goes to voters.

The state legislature would have to approve any sale or lease of the property if one came about.

The bill carries a condition that any funds from a sale or lease would be given to the state to only be used to purchase more land for the state Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Park.

Stec said the state doesn’t want the prison land. It could be used by the public. But it can’t move without the constitutional amendment. With the amendment being the only solution, the difficulty getting it passed is frustrating, he said.

Stec feels there’s a “hypocrisy” about the state taking issue with some environmental issues relating to development and cellphone towers, but letting a full prison campus rot and become a “blight.”

“Camp Gabriels has laid dormant far too long and it’s had a negative impact on our local economy and quality of life,” Stec said in a statement. “If we’re serious about repurposing closed prisons, passing this constitutional amendment removes this financial liability from the state and is the next step in generating the jobs, revenue and economic activity we’ve needed in Franklin County since Camp Gabriels was closed in 2009.”

History of the prison

The minimum security prison closed in 2009. At one point it had a large population of more than 300 inmates. These were all low-level, non-violent offenders and it was described as being a “quiet” facility — a place where inmates were allowed to be sent out on work crews to learn trades on public projects and even help build the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace.

After drug laws changed, leading to fewer drug offenders being incarcerated, the population dropped. As the state sought to cut costs, Camp Gabriels was closed in 2009 with around 160 inmates.

The state Office of General Services took jurisdiction over the camp. OGS tried to sell it twice at auction in 2011 with no takers. In 2014, the land almost sold for $166,000 with plans to turn it into a summer camp for Orthodox Jewish boys.

But environmental advocates pointed out that the land could not be sold because of the Article 14 “Forever Wild” clause of the state constitution. This clause prohibits the sale of state Forest Preserve land.

When the prison closed, the land defaulted into the Forest Preserve. The only way to sell Forest Preserve land is to get an exception to the clause passed with a constitutional amendment.

The environmental groups are not against the sale. Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild have both supported the sale. But they want the state to go through the proper channels.

The effort to do that has never gained enough traction in the Legislature. The amendment was first proposed in 2016 by now-retired Sen. Betty Little, after advocacy by the Brighton Town Council.

In the meantime, the property has just rotted. Inside, ceilings sag, humidity has stripped the paint off the walls and it lays in chips on the floor and the floors are coming up. Nature has reclaimed all the open spaces. There’s been a decade’s worth of vandalism — mostly graffiti and broken windows.

Corrections officers who used to work at Camp Gabriels and have toured the abandoned campus in recent years have described it as looking like something out of the “Blair Witch Project.”

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.

The camp was built in 1897 as a tuberculosis sanatorium run by the Sisters of Mercy nuns.

In the years since, the property changed hands and uses several times — geriatric care after World War II, and classroom and dormitory space for Paul Smith’s College in the 1960s and 1970s. These transactions were fine because it was 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.

“You’ve all heard me, probably more times than you’ve cared to, rant about the effect that prison closures have,” Stec said on the Senate floor. “These properties don’t age well when they sit fallow like this.”

Video of Stec speaking on the bill can be seen at tinyurl.com/5u9wcr45.


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