MANSFIELD, Conn. (AP) -- A year after the last inmate left the Bergin Correctional Institution, the University of Connecticut is in talks with the state to lease the shuttered prison in Mansfield as it seeks out more space for offices and laboratories.
Bergin is one of three prisons the state has closed in recent years as crime drops and the inmate population shrinks. While the state is interested in leasing Bergin, officials say the Department of Correction wants to retain control in case it needs to use it as a correctional facility in the future.
"In the meantime it would certainly be a savings to the taxpayers to have someone else using it and maintaining it for whatever purpose," said Michael Lawlor, the governor's top aide for criminal justice policy. "It's not like a prison type setup, it's more like a dormitory type setup, part of it seems more like you're in a college dormitory than you're in a prison."
The 11.5-acre complex was originally part of the Mansfield Training School and Hospital, a facility for people with mental disabilities that opened in 1917 after a merger of the Connecticut Training School for the Feebleminded and the Connecticut Colony for Epileptics.
Bergin's main two-story, brick building opened as a prison in 1989. The facility at times housed more than 1,000 inmates, many in pre-release programs, before it was closed in August 2011. It sits across the street from a section of UConn known as the Depot Campus, which also used to be part of the Training School and houses some graduate programs, offices, and the school's puppetry museum.
University spokesman Tom Breen told The Associated Press it is in the early stages of talks that have focused on the length of the possible lease and how the space could be used.
"We are in need of lab space, and that's one of the uses we are looking at, along with office space, classrooms and other things," he said.
Other states also have found new uses for closed prisons. In Boston, a former jail is now a hotel, a former prison in Virginia is now an arts center, and in Newark, N.J. a correctional facility was turned into office space.
Connecticut's prison population has been falling steadily from an all-time high of nearly 20,000 inmates in February 2008, dropping to just more than 16,600 as of last week.
In addition to Bergin, the state closed the Webster prison in Cheshire in January 2010 and the Gates Correctional Institution in Niantic in June 2011. Webster is being converted by the Department of Correction into a centralized records storage facility.
While the main building at Gates is closed, several buildings still house about 600 minimum-security inmates involved in pre-release programs or on work details in southeastern Connecticut. The staff comes from the neighboring York Correctional Institution
Correction Department spokesman Brian Garnett said prison officials estimate the closings are saving the state about $27 million a year in staff, maintenance and other costs.
Union officials say they would like to see Gates reopened to relieve stress on intake facilities, the prisons where inmates are housed while awaiting a prison assignment.
"It's kind of a shell game, I don't think they're really saving money by saying Gates is closed," said Luke Leone, president of AFSME Local 1565. "There are still 350 to 400 inmates still in unconventional housing, sleeping on the sleds in some of the gyms in the other facilities."
When Superstorm Sandy hit last month, some inmates were relocated for a few days to the main building at Gates from others that were threatened by flooding, but they have since been returned.
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