Offering rehab in Mount Hope


A tuberculosis sanitarium, a training school for boys, a drug abuse treatment center and, for the past 26 years, a New York state correctional facility. Those are the many and varied faces of Otisville, a sprawling and mountainous 1,300-acre complex which eerily looks like it has been purposely carved into the side of a massive mountain in the small, rural town of Mount Hope in Orange County.

Otisville has the reputation of being one of seven existing facilities throughout the state that were acquired by the Department in 1976 in order to turn them into prisons and provide the space needed quickly in response to the recently-enacted Rockefeller drug laws.

Otisville has another dubious and unique distinction in this modem day and age of penology. It is now the only correctional facility in all of New York state to have an active horse perimeter patrol. It's considered a necessity more than a novelty or luxury when one takes a glance at the rough and sometimes treacherous terrain that surrounds the prison.

Otisville is also believed to be one of only a handful or so prisons in the United States that still use equines for perimeter patrol purposes.

The sprawling site, which is located some 10 miles west of the city of Middletown, also includes a number of separate buildings spread out over a wide area within the grounds. If you want to get in shape, spend some time walking this medium- security facility.

Different uses in a bygone era

The original structure dates back to the early 1900s. It was at that time when New York City, in conjunction with its Department of Health, began to purchase land - mostly farmland and out buildings - for the purpose of relocating patients suffering from a highly contagious disease known as tuberculosis.

The medical thinking at the time was that the best cure for this ailment was "rest, good food and fresh air," where patients could be removed from the general population to a controlled isolation, country-like and mountainous setting away from the bustling and congested streets of the city.

Closer view of Otisville CF building in top-of-page image.

After some searching, Orange County in upstate New York, more specifically the town of Mount Hope some 90 miles from Manhattan, became the healing center of choice.

In July of 1906, the City of New York Municipal Sanatorium of the Department of Hospitals at Otisville was established.

As was the custom in those days, publicly-owned facilities often took the name of the closest post office in the area, not the geographical location in which the institution was situated. In this sense the hospital was misnamed Otisville because it was actually located in the town of Mount Hope.

After its opening, the surrounding land was farmed by residents and staff to feed hospital patients. Many in the workforce were provided free housing in converted out buildings and purchased farmhouses in exchange for a portion of their wages.

It remained a hospital for TB patients until its closing in 1955. At that time, through an agreement with the City of New York, the state Division for Youth (DFY) purchased the property and renamed it the New York State Otisville Training School. The facility now housed juvenile delinquents from across the state - they came primarily from the metropolitan area - and it functioned as a boys' training school.

The Superintendent's report for December 1960 describes a major construction program at Otisville, which would have far reaching ramifications then and now:

"Phase I... pertains to the erection of five 25-boy cottages, a three-building academic school, and a gymnasium. ...Phase II a will include such buildings as five double cottages, a mess hall, administration building, a single cottage, Protestant chapel, and possibly a new laundry building."

The training school closed its doors in 1972. The property was then briefly used as a drug treatment center under the auspices of the Office of Drug Abuse Services CODAS) to help combat the rising problem of substance abuse.

"Briefly" is the key word in describing the new drug treatment center's tenure. Shortly after the facility opened, a local a historian discovered that the center boasted more staff members than residents. The site was immediately closed, and remained vacant until DOCS acquired it in 1976.

With the Department in dire need of new space, and quickly, the pace was furious. Extensive renovation - a drug treatment facility is set up quite differently than a medium-security state prison - made it ready in relatively short fashion for the initial arrival of the first wave of 320 male inmates.

The last of the horse patrols remains on duty at Otisville.

The uniqueness that is Otisville

For example, Otisville was the first correctional facility in New York state where Officers rode horses for perimeter patrol - more of a necessity than anything else, as Otisville's winding perimeter is more than 3 1/2 miles long.

Because of the mountainous terrain that comprises much of Otisville, perimeter vehicle patrols are entirely out of the question.

Hence, security could be compromised along some portions of the sprawling perimeter were it not for Otisville 's trusty steeds. . . .

The New York City Police Department (NYPD) donated the first horse, Ginch, to get the program started. Since then, other NYPD horses that have been retired from active duty in the city have been sent to Otisville.

Some of Otisville's perimeter patrol horses also had previous lives as thoroughbred race horses before being retired; their duties as perimeter patrol horses quite simply gives them a second chance at life, as many of Otisville's current equines might otherwise had been destined to be shipped to slaughterhouses. Donations of horses also have come from some concerned citizens and farmers in the local community and even from some surrounding venues.

Two horse patrols operate daily at Otisville on the 7 a.m. - 3 p.m. shift and two more patrols are on duty during the 3 p.m. - 11 p.m. shift each day. There are no evening shifts as Otisville's inmates are locked in for the night around 11 p.m.

Being teamed with a horse is a popular concept for staff at Otisville. Correction Officers bid for the job, which has a huge appeal to those individuals who like the outdoors and horses. It also can be lonely and uncomfortable tasks at times, riding in all kinds of weather from the sleet and snow of winter to the scorching heat and humidity of summer. But the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages when other factors are considered.

Closer view of an Otisville CF horse patrol .

For one thing, the Officer and the horse are true partners, and over the years the horses have more than proven their worth with their heightened alertness and keen ability to sense potential problems.

"The horses are a real big advantage when it comes to security here. It's like having two people on patrol at the same time," said Stewart Strauss, a seasoned blacksmith who has shoed Otisville patrol horses since the inception of the program a quarter of a century ago.

"The senses that we've lost through the years these horses still have," explained Strauss.

" A horse will pick something up if someone or something has crossed the path. Even if the rider fails to detect it, the horse will alert him.

"A horse's senses are extremely acute for survival," said Strauss.

"They can easily detect things out of the ordinary because their senses of smell and hearing are so much better than ours. And they're a great visual deterrent as well because of their size. . . .

"Horses see much farther, and much clearer," than human beings at night, Strauss said. And Officers also are provided with a better visual vantage point "because they're sitting six feet above the ground and are able to see more as compared to driving a vehicle or walking," said Strauss.

Horses also are a good economical bargain and provide a savings for New York state taxpayers when compared with the costs of vehicular perimeter patrols.

"You can go 20 years on the same horse. You're not going to do that with a vehicle," Strauss said. "Some of these horses have been here at Otisville as long as I have."

The Otisville horses also have helped solidify the Department's presence in the community. The equines are frequent visitors to local events like county, town and village fairs, Little League parades, holiday celebrations and other well-attended community events.

Governor Pataki at Grahamsville's "Little World's Fair" with Otisville COs (from left) Walter Varcoe, Michael Padgett, Ken Kelly, and Carol Jewell.

Not all horses can handle perimeter patrols. Potential candidates can be disqualified if they're high strung, too calm or prone to spooking.

Additionally, horses with physical defects often are not assigned to perimeter patrols because of the rugged terrain most of them must traverse, often in extremely adverse elements.

And when the weather becomes particularly inclement, where the health and/or safety of the horse or the Officer could be jeopardized, the patrols are pulled.

There is safety in these numbers

Otisville today has the capacity to house 771 male inmates in dormitories. Eight-one percent of Otisville 's inmate population were convicted of violent crimes. Each is nearing the end of their sentences and have earned medium-security placement through good behavior and positive program involvement. The facility was accredited in 1989 by the American Correctional Association, affirming that it meets nationally- acceptable standards in its management and operations. It has been accredited triennially since then.

Like many other state prisons, Otisville has seen a reduction in unusual incidents and violence over the past seven years. The number of violent incidents at Otisville has decreased by 50 percent since 1996, falling from 10 to just 5 in 2001. The number of unusual incidents also declined by 44 percent between 1996 and 2001, falling from 50 to 28. No inmate escapes have occurred at the facility since January 1, 1995.

Otisville's workforce totaled 328 in 1995, com- pared to 321 in March 2002. Part of the reduction was due to a decrease in inmate capacity. The inmate population was just 607 in March 2002.

Operating expenses rose from $15.9 million in Fiscal 1996 to $20.3 million in Fiscal 2001. The payroll portion rose from $13.6 million in Fiscal 1996 to $15.7 million in Fisca12001. Otisville capital expenses of $2,990,775 since 1995 have accomplished general maintenance and assorted rehabilitation projects, including asbestos removal in Fisca11996 and construction of a new main entrance tower in Fiscal 2001. . . .

Otisville's new perimeter tower.

Because the buildings at Otisville are so far apart, the facility has its own internal bus system in order to transport staff and inmates during inclement weather. In 1982, the facility even had a solar-powered bookmobile to carry library materials to outlying areas of the massive grounds. The bookmobile is no longer in use. Additionally, at one time solar panels, constructed at the facility, were used to preheat laundry water.

The solar panels are no longer in use, nor are the wood-bumming stoves that for a time succeeded the panels in performing similar chores. The stoves were built by inmates and augmented the facility's regular heating system, which saved Otisville a considerable amount of oil and taxpayer dollars.

The facility also boasts a working sawmill that seemingly is used on a daily basis. Its primary product is timber for various construction projects and repairs throughout the facility.

Another unique and innovative project debuted in 1986. That year, inmates put together a building, using wood cut at the sawmill, to make syrup from sap which was tapped from the hundreds of sugar maple trees that line the facility grounds.

Program opportunities abound

Otisville offers a full range of academic education, vocational training, alcohol and substance abuse treatment services and volunteer services programs.

Otisville is also one of just five prisons in the state to offer the innovative Family Reading Program. The unique initiative assists children and adults in developing basic reading skills in Spanish, which can be utilized to assist them in their transition to learning the English language. . . .

Additionally, Otisville is just one of three New York prisons to offer the Family Works Program. This is an education and parenting program designed to impact in both a positive and significant manner in assisting young parents in the overall maintenance of family ties. . . .

Some of Otisville's younger inmates also run a highly- successful Youth Assistance Program (YAP) that is specifically designed to provide positive guidance and direction to at-risk youth . . . .

You help us, we'll help you

Otisville's horses aren't its only link to the outside community. Each year, supervised community service crews work in communities throughout the area completing needed projects on behalf of municipal leaders and not-for-profit agencies.

Program assistant A. J. Belfiglio conducts a residential substance abuse treatment session.

Since 1995, Otisville crews have logged 74,269 work hours with17,596 hours of security supervision. In 2001, Otisville staff and inmates spent almost 10,000 hours working in the community: staff logged 1,711 hours and inmates worked 7,249 hours. The community service work is varied, depending on need. It could entail repairs to senior centers and Little League fields, cleanups of cemeteries and area roadways, painting churches or helping residents dig out from natural disaster like ice storms, floods or snowstorms. . . .

Otisville has been able to recruit volunteers aged 21 and older to come into the prison and share their experiences, advice and skills with inmates. . . . The volunteers meet with, inmates on a regular basis on a variety of issues like religious r and pre-release services, self-help and transitional services, child advocacy and youth assistance programs. . . .

Otisville also maintains a good relationship with the adjacent federal correctional facility that bears the same name. That federal facility opened in 1980.

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NYCHS logo DOCS Today logoNYCHS is honored to be permitted to present these excerpts from Facility Profile: Mid-Orange appearing in the May 2002 issue of DOCS|TODAY. To access the full 2003 and 2004 issues in Adobe Acrobat format (PDF), visit the DOCS|TODAY menu page on the DOCS web site by clicking on the logo above. All rights to the text and images remain with DOCS.