As prisons close, communities seek to reuse buildings
A closed jail in Connecticut has been redeveloped for document storage. Another is used to process and train newly hired correctional officers. A third that has been emptied of its prisoners in the past decade remains unused.
With the state‘s prison population having declined by more than half from its peak of nearly 20,000 in 2008, decisions will need to be made on what to do with three more prisons to be closed, including the northern correctional facility that once housed death row, which is slated to be closed next month.
This is a difficult situation and an opportunity for many states in the country, as the drop in crime rates and the focus on alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenses, especially drug-related crimes, are allow the exploration of new uses of prisons.
Since 2009, the percentage of US residents who are in jail has fallen 17%, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. This has been helped over the past year by the pandemic, as many prisons have left at-risk inmates on leave. The number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local prisons has grown from around 2.1 million in 2019 to around 1.8 million by the end of 2020, according to the non-profit Vera of Justice institute.
As new prisons have been built, many states are downsizing. Between 2011 and 2016, 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities across the United States closed, according to the nonprofit Sentencing Project, which tracks prison closures.
“In light of falling crime rates, COVID and the state’s budget crises, discussions have also taken place to close prisons in several other states,” said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the project. sentencing.
Across the country, prisons have been converted into shelters for the homeless, centers for troubled adolescents and, in at least one case, a film studio.
Not all of them serve entirely different purposes. The owners of many private prisons have filled the beds by contracting with U.S. immigration and customs officials to detain detained immigrants, said Eunice Cho, senior lawyer with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The danger of having prisons that are neither remodeled nor, to be honest, demolished is that there will always be an incentive to lock up more people,” she said.
Here are some uses that communities have found for emptied prisons:
Nine years ago, community leaders in Gainesville, Florida were looking for a solution to the area’s homelessness problem just as the state closed the Gavinsville Correctional Facility amid budget cuts.
The opportunity met the need. The city acquired the old correctional facility. The razor wire has been removed, trees have been planted, and the walls painted in bright colors. It is now GRACE Marketplace, a 135-bed center offering temporary dormitory-type accommodation and other services for the homeless.
“We are the only homeless shelter in the universe that improved property value when we moved in,” said Jon DeCarmine, Executive Director of GRACE. “Adaptations have been necessary to make it something that works. But overall, the benefits to the community and the people we serve far outweighed the hassle of moving to a facility that had been used in a different way before.
Haywood Correctional Center in Waynesville, NC is also serving homeless people after project advocates won a competition to ‘flip’ the property in 2014 with help from TV renovation guru , Ty Pennington.
“We inherited an already existing commercial kitchen, so it’s a really huge expense that we just didn’t have,” said Mandy Haithcox, managing director of the current Haywood Pathways Center. “Basically we had to buy furniture and move people in. I think it’s a very good use of space and I would like more people to do that. ”
The former Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island in New York City was purchased by Broadway Stages in 2017 and has been transformed into a film and television studio.
Much of the prison has been preserved as a backdrop, lending authenticity to scenes from productions such as “Orange is the New Black” and “Oceans Eight”. Five more sound stages are being built at the 69-acre site, giving production companies the opportunity to shoot entire projects there, said Samara Schaum, spokesperson for Broadway Stages.
The studio has created around 40 permanent jobs and each production that arrives attracts between 200 and 300 people, she said.
“And as much as they can, they like to use local restaurants for food, local businesses for craft services, whatever they need,” she said. “It’s part of the identity of Broadway Stages. I know it has had a positive impact on local businesses there.
Work continues to transform Scotland’s former Correctional Center in Wagram, North Carolina, which was abandoned in 2001, into a sustainable educational farm called GrowingChange, which serves struggling teens and veterans.
The project which started in 2011 as a partnership between charities, local government and universities provides training in areas such as beekeeping and vermicomposting, with cells being turned into aquaponics reservoirs. The farm sells its products, such as eggs, compost, and livestock to the local community.
The young people in charge of the project are also considering a recreational component, transforming the watchtower, for example, into a climbing wall and a zipline, said Noran Sanford, founder of GrowingChange.
The organization created a plan, called Prison Flip Toolkit, a partnership with North Carolina A&T and the Kellogg Foundation to help other communities with similar projects, he said.
“I believe we should take these rusty tools of injustice and intelligently transform them into tools of justice,” Sanford said.