Peter Buffett and wife plan to help women by converting old NYC prison
By Steve Jordon
World-Herald Staff Writer
Miyhosi Benton is silent no more.
“In prison we were not treated as human beings,” Benton said in a telephone interview from New York City. “We were treated as property. Our voices were silent, and the experiences that we went through did not matter.
“To be involved in transforming this building is priceless.”
“This building” once was a women’s prison and is now a rebirth project of the NoVo Foundation, which is funded by Warren Buffett and run by his son Peter and daughter-in-law Jennifer, both longtime New Yorkers.
NoVo’s support means that Benton and a group of other former female inmates have the ear of the Buffett family and are recipients of its philanthropy.
“It’s hard not to get emotional about this,” Peter Buffett told The World-Herald.
The couple attended planning meetings where women spoke of their time in prison and their ideas of what the former Bayview Correctional Facility could become as New York City’s Women’s Building.
“When you’re in the room with them and they’re absorbing the fact that they have a voice in this and are being listened to and it matters, it’s overwhelming,” Peter Buffett said. “We always try to change the dynamic from, ‘We’re the ones with the money and we know best’ to ‘You’re the people with the experience. You tell us.’ ”
New York advocacy groups have talked about a Women’s Building in the city for decades but didn’t have the money.
Pamela Shifman, NoVo’s executive director, and real estate developer Lela Goren had been looking for a location for a women’s building when they heard about Bayview becoming available and connected the two.
Last fall, NoVo made what amounts to a blank-check commitment to carry out the project.
“We can leap and know that the net will appear,” Peter Buffett said. That’s because Warren Buffett makes annual contributions to NoVo and his other two children’s foundations — $153 million each this year and similar amounts for years to come.
For starters, there’s $3.5 million in annual rent and a 99 year lease on the building. It is owned by the State of New York and was shut down in 2012 after it was evacuated as Hurricane Sandy approached Manhattan.
Then there are tens of millions of dollars needed to convert the prison into offices, classrooms, meeting halls and other spaces that will be home to advocacy groups that are tackling local, national and international issues for women and girls.
Buffett said that the building’s 40-year history as a prison makes it especially important to involve formerly incarcerated women. But NoVo has been supporting groups working on women’s prison issues, including the Women & Justice Project in New York City.
Former inmate Benton, now an associate of that project, said she hopes that the building can house programs that will keep women from being incarcerated, led by women who have had that experience. Hers was a different prison from Bayview, but prison nonetheless.
“There was disbelief and shock when I heard the building that was a place of punishment, degrading and isolation would be transformed into a place of uplifting and empowerment,” Benton said. “All the time, every step of the way, our voices are being heard and listened to on the outcome of the building. It’s magnificent.”
She said that she asks everyone she knows to add their voices to the planning process. “It’s an honor to be able to have these women trust us with their hopes and dreams and to know that their hopes and dreams are going to be put into effect.”
Tamar Kraft-Stolar, co-director of the Women & Justice Project, monitored conditions at Bayview when it was still a prison. She said all the groups that will occupy the building are working on social issues that lead women to be confined.
“It’s balancing the pain and the horror of the place of incarceration with this incredible opportunity to transform this place,” Kraft-Stolar said. “There’s a feeling of hope where there often wasn’t hope before.”
Shifman said the same changes that would help women avoid and recover from prison apply to all women.
Research earlier this decade from the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, said 60 percent of incarcerated women were not employed full time when they were arrested, and 37 percent had incomes under $600 in the month leading up to their arrest, compared with 40 percent and 28 percent of men, respectively.
“Women who’ve been incarcerated really sit at the epicenter of multiple forms of violence and oppression, poverty and addiction,” Shifman said, “all of the very factors that the foundation has been working to address since its inception.”
NoVo had $527 million in assets at the end of 2014 and spends about $100 million a year supporting more than 250 charities.
Grants that year included $5.8 million to the New World Foundation, $4 million to the Ms. Foundation for Women, $10 million to the Nike Foundation, $6.5 million to Rockefeller-related groups, $10 million to the Tides Foundation and $7.5 million to Turnaround for Children.
Shifman said Warren Buffett’s focus on overlooked, undervalued investments has a lesson for the foundation. “All over the world, girls and women are deeply undervalued, but when they are supported, they have a tremendous opportunity to change their own lives and the lives of so many around them.”
The groups occupying its floors will pay rent, she said, and other groups will be able to use facilities such as meeting rooms or event spaces. Tentative plans include an art gallery, a restaurant, a wellness clinic and offices, with an opening target of 2020.
The building’s programming is being developed through a transparent, collaborative process, which is still underway. Eventually, Shifman said, a separate nonprofit group probably will operate the building. “We expect the building will last longer than the NoVo Foundation.”
That’s in line with NoVo’s practice of creating conditions in which others can do the work of improving the lives of women and girls, she said. The groups collaborating to plan the building’s future already are starting to find new ways to work together.
“Women who have experienced the most discrimination, violence and abuse often have the most visionary ideas about the ways to transform conditions in our society that lead to that kind of discrimination and violence in the first place,” Shifman said.
NoVo Foundation, formed 10 years ago, has made grants to several groups aimed at issues of incarcerated women, some for many years and some fairly recently.
Peter Buffett said that most people seldom think about what happens when women leave prison.
“It’s one thing to be incarcerated and all of the difficulties and oftentimes just gross injustices that happen inside the wall,” he said, “and then you get out, and it is an incredibly steep step toward any sort of normalcy.”
But prison is only part of the challenge, he said.
“Trafficked girls or incarcerated women or domestic violence survivors, it’s all the same picture,” he said. “Girls and women are a huge key to our future if we want to be a loving, nurturing, supportive society.”
Peter Buffett said that his values come from both of his parents, Warren and Susan Thompson Buffett, who died in 2004. “My mother, this would have been something near and dear to her heart, for sure.”
The Buffett family’s interest in prison inmates includes Doris Buffett, Warren’s sister, who for years has supported a program that provides college courses in several men’s prisons.
Peter Buffett has toured the future Women’s Building, so far unchanged since it was vacated. Renovation plans include preserving some part of the prison, such as a solitary confinement cell, to memorialize its history.
He said that many of the women imprisoned at Bayview were desperate, backed into defending themselves or their children, scarred by poverty or abuse, marginalized by the people they should have been able to trust.
“It’s really more that the building is just this phenomenal symbol that we can hold up,” he said. “It’s more about violence in our society than prison specifically, people locked up and banished from society.”
He said that he and Jennifer have met many women and girls trapped by those societal conditions.
“We’ve been thrust into the center of a world I didn’t know before the foundation,” he said. “The prison is part of that world.”
U.S. prisons hold about one third of the imprisoned women in the world, according to the International Center for Prison Studies.
A video by the NoVo Foundation shows some formerly incarcerated women touring the empty building, including a rooftop exercise area enclosed in a cage like structure. As they did while confined, they look at Manhattan’s skyline and ships moving on the Hudson River just across the West Side Highway.
One of the women in the video, Sharon Richardson, now a women’s rights activist, says she remembers watching the ships and thinking, “When is my ship coming in?” Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns the Omaha World-Herald.
This article originally appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on August 1, 2016 with the headline “Giving ex-inmates a voice.” Read the article on their website.