NYS Shuts Down Willard Prison for Addicts

NYS Shuts Down Willard Prison for Addicts

Located on Seneca Lake at the Site of the Former Asylum/Psychiatric Hospital

The Willard DTC — Drug Treatment Campus— was a New York State correctional facility that opened in 1995 on a portion of the same site where the Willard Psychiatric hospital stood. And this ”boot-camp” or “shock incarceration” style drug treatment campus was nestled right on the east side of Seneca Lake in the tiny hamlet of Willard, NY.

It was specifically created for incarcerated drug addicts or alcoholics who’d been convicted and sentenced for rehabilitation, and it was considered voluntary. The alternative was a longer sentence in a conventional prison.

Hi, I’m Pam Pariso, a local real estate pro with a passion for Seneca Lake history. I just love this part of upstate New York, and Seneca is my favorite of the 11 Finger Lakes. Please keep me in mind for referrals.

Willard DTC opened on September 26,1995 with its first platoon, as a promise of hope for people with addiction issues who were also in legal trouble. It was a unique program for the New York State, filled with hope for recovery, and based on sound clinical practices. It was basically like a state funded rehab facility offering an ambitious and cost-effective program. At its height, it had an inmate capacity of 900, with a staff of about 400.

Inmates were assigned to a specific platoon upon admission and they remained with that group for the duration. Each platoon went through a 13-week program rotation. Every week, new inmates were admitted and graduating inmates were discharged.

This 90-day treatment program was considered voluntary. It provided a sentencing option for people convicted of a drug offense or parole violators who otherwise would have been sent to a state prison for a year or more. The facility was operated by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and was licensed by the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.

Even though it was a drug treatment campus, it wasn’t college. It was a prison where the inmates were incarcerated. There was razor wire on top of the high fences, corrections officers, strict security, and limits on mail, phone calls and visitors.

The main gate building was the Hatch Building, which is where administrative and staff offices were located. It also had an arsenal where weapons and keys were stored.

It also had C & D dormitory wings.

C1 was the only dorm exclusively for women inmates, with a maximum capacity of 50. And since the entire facility had a max capacity of 900, that means it held up to 850 men and 50 women. It was one of the few prisons in New York State that was coed. Male and female inmates were kept completely separate at all times.

Another building was Sunnycroft, which was the largest dorm building with 8 wings, each holding 50 men. The Birches Building (named after the Birch trees that were once there, apparently) held more dorms for men. It also contained the education and vocational classrooms, and the library.

Treatment staff and corrections officers had offices on all the housing units.

Staff had to adhere to a strict dress code and take a rigorous four-week training program themselves, and were considered role models to the inmates.

Positive philosophies were stressed. The Willard mascot was the wolf, as wolves live in packs and rely on each other. Lone wolves don’t survive, much like addicts and criminals who eventually lose social bonds.

The daily schedule at Willard regimented, like clockwork, with drill instructors shouting orders. Discipline and respect were taught and expected, with consequences for non compliance. Inmates were taught grooming standards, including clothes pressed with military creases, shined shoes and wearing ties with tucked-in shirts to school, visits and a religious services.

The military regimen was tough. Everybody had to be up at 5:30am for physical training. Everybody marched out to The Grinder an outside area where physical training and company formations took place, rain or shine, snow or heat. They marched in platoons of about 50.

At precisely 7:45am a specific platoon sent chosen representatives to march out and launch the flag up the flag pole, and then again take it down at 5:45pm.

Inmates were there because of addiction issues and a criminal history. They could be sent to Willard by a judge giving a new sentence — or as a parole violators. All Willard releases were required to attend aftercare treatment and continue on parole supervision.

Willard DTC had a high level of military discipline that most inmates had never been exposed to. The walls had slogans on them such as “A Bad Day in Shock is Whole Lot Better than a Good Day in Jail.”

These platoons all lived together in the same dorm wing, and did everything together as a group, including marching, eating meals, and rotating through programs.

Some struggled because the program was so tough, and chose to leave and go to a regular prison.

That was a short clip from a documentary called “Wake Up Screaming” that you can find on YouTube. It’s about 50 minutes long. Personally I found it depressing. But you’ll have to watch it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. No doubt, Willard DTC was a school of hard knocks, and it wasn’t meant to be easy street.

In addition to group counseling and school, there was vocational training in flooring, painting, masonry, horticulture, and building maintenance.

They also had a farm project which ranged from growing crops that were donated to local food banks, a greenhouse where people learned floral arrangements, and even a maple syrup manufacturing setup.

In November of 2021, which was in the height of the pandemic, sadly state officials decided that Willard would be one of six NYS prisons to close, “due to a declining number of inmates.”

At that time Willard DTC had about 330 staff members, and the inmate population had dwindled to less than 200.

A state spokesperson issued a statement that inmates would be relocated to other prisons, staff would be transferred to other facilities such as Five Points or Elmira, and the facility would be decommissioned. The other five prisons that closed that month were:

  • Ogdensburg Correctional Facility.
  • Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility).
  • Southport Correctional Facility.
  • Downstate Correctional Facility.
  • Rochester Correctional Facility.

“We will be able to safely absorb the incarcerated population into vacant beds available at other institutions and relocate the Drug Treatment Campus functions to Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility in Chautauqua County,” a DOCCS spokesperson said in a press release.

And now the empty prison stands amid the rubble of dozens of other crumbling brick buildings on the Willard campus of the former psych hospital and insane asylum. If you’re on the east side of Seneca Lake, perhaps taking the wine trail, stop and drive through it.

My husband worked there as Deputy Superintendent of Programs from the time it opened in 1995 until his retirement a few years ago, and he along with many of his former coworkers are sad that this great program got shuttered. It did a lot of good for a lot of people in its 27 years of existence.

The Preservation League of NYS included the massive Willard campus as one of the ‘Seven to Save’ on the list of endangered historical sites, the state has no immediate plans to repurpose this ghost town, and the local economy was hurt by its closing.

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