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Camden's riverfront prison yields to redevelopment

Greg Bartkowski, who has the unusual job of dismantling a prison, pauses near a watchtower to gaze at the horizon and take in the incongruous beauty.

Greg Bartkowski, who has the unusual job of dismantling a prison, pauses near a watchtower to gaze at the horizon and take in the incongruous beauty.

A sailboat passes under the enormous Ben Franklin Bridge. Birds chirp their assorted languages. Sunlight bounces off the Philadelphia skyline.

"This is why the land's being sold," Bartkowski says.

Bartkowski is administrator of Camden's Riverfront State Prison, which, as of yesterday, had exactly 30 inmates - down from 1,100 last year. In January, Gov. Corzine ordered it shut as part of the latest effort to entice money, housing, and jobs to the waterfront of the impoverished city.

In a few days, after its final inmates are transferred to some of the state's 12 other prisons, the details of life at Riverfront - women on passing boats who lifted their shirts for thrilled male prisoners, inmates who snitched on fellow inmates to land a cell facing Penn's Landing - will pass into lore.

Already, basketball hoops have been removed and inmates have stacked stainless-steel toilets - $1,200 each - in the prison yard, where they will be picked up and transported to other prisons.

One inmate listened to headphones and walked laps. Two others played handball. Basketballs lay on the ground, their Riverfront days soon to be behind them.

The closure is "sad," Bartkowski, 57, of Medford, said more than once. He was there when Riverfront opened in 1985, working as the prison's director of education. He had no idea last year, when he was named administrator, that he would be the one to "decommission" Riverfront.

"After being in the business for 30 years I finally get to run my own jail, and now they go and close it on me," Bartkowski joked.

Though the low-rise building and three annexes - the second-newest facility in the state - are in good shape, "there are higher powers than I who are interested in the land for development," Bartkowski said he explained at a staff meeting, shortly after getting his orders.

There aren't any official buyers for the land, but political and civic leaders believe it's the best available 16 acres in Camden.

A nonbinding plan for the property and surrounding North Camden community includes market-rate and low-income housing; an ice rink and promenade; a fishing pier; and a dock for large ships. The city and state will direct the redevelopment.

The site juts into the Delaware River a block north of the bridge, providing a view arguably more spectacular than what can be seen from the Adventure Aquarium and other tourist attractions on the south side. On land, however, the prison borders some of the most active drug corners in the city.

Riverfront's inmates and 400 employees have been relocated to other facilities gradually over six months. Workers protested the closure at county freeholder meetings and posted leaflets at Cherry Hill Mall warning that prisoners would be released into the community.

Most staff members live in Camden County, said Bartkowski, who believes many were upset because they would have a longer commute. He said 80 percent of staffers were given their first choice for relocation, and all were transferred south of Trenton.

The union for the officers, the New Jersey Law Enforcement Supervisors Association, has praised the prison for how it has handled the staff relocations. But it is concerned about the state's approach to corrections. There are now about 30,000 prisoners statewide, compared to 35,000 in the 1990s.

"When you close a 1,000-bed institution, where are you going to now put them?" asked Sgt. Thomas Stremme, acting president of the association.

"We've always believed this was an opportunity for privatized halfway houses to get their foothold into the department," said Stremme, whose group finds the prospect cause for alarm. "That's where these inmates at the end of the day are going to wind up."

The Department of Corrections has said there was sufficient space in existing prisons.

Bartkowski informed inmates of the closure by meeting with the Prisoners Representative Committee. Each man's file was reviewed to ensure that he wasn't placed in a facility that housed enemies or gang associates.

Bartkowski said he also tried to put the men near their families. But for security reasons, inmates were not told when they would leave or where they were going. They were awakened at 4 a.m., told to pack an overnight bag, and put in the B.O.S.S. chair - which detects metal in body cavities - for the last time at Riverfront.

Personal possessions, such as TVs bought at the prison canteen, were inventoried and boxed for shipment to their new locations.

"Once they knew that their possessions were behind them, they were OK," Bartkowski said.

The last matter for Bartkowski is the prison's equipment. Representatives from the other state correctional facilities have toured Riverfront and made wish-lists.

The remaining prisoners are responsible for dismantling the very infrastructure that has imprisoned them - even the inner fences.

Bartkowski has been promised a job as administrator of another state prison, but he's unsure when he'll begin there.

One block away from the prison, at Front and Elm Streets, a city resident and landlord is building four duplexes. He is thrilled that Riverfront is closing, and hopes that Rutgers-Camden keeps its promise to expand into the neighborhood so he can rent to students.

"Somebody has to start something, and I figured I'd be the first to build," said Joe Incandela. "I'm in the perfect place here."