America Is Finally Closing Prisons. Now What Do We Do With Them?

The trickiest reuse challenge yet.

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Two years ago, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics announced a small data point marking an inglorious milestone: In 2009, America’s prison population declined, and for the first time in decades. This meant, to frame the news another way, that until that year, dating all the way back to 1972, America had been in the business of constantly imprisoning more and more people. During that time, incarceration – and constructing sprawling complexes and boxy cellblocks to accommodate it – had become something of a great American growth industry.

Since then, the trend appears to be holding. In 2011, 13 states were closing prisons or in the process of it. Michigan has now closed 22 facilities since 2002. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans last year to close seven. And legislators in Texas – a state that had tripled its prison capacity since the late '80s – recently opted to close the 102-year-old Sugar Land prison. Last week, the BJS confirmed that prison populations are on the decline for the third year in a row, and an arc is beginning to take shape.

"Conventional wisdom is this narrative that 'it’s all about the economy, stupid,' and none of this would be happening if budgets weren’t so tight and [states] didn’t need to save money," says Adam Gelb, who directs the Public Safety Performance Project with the Pew Center on the States. "That is just emphatically not our experience and interpretation of what’s going on at the state level."

Rather, says Gelb, what’s happening is a fundamental shift in thinking about prisons by the public, politicians and public safety professionals, with the result that we may be entering a new phase of America's complex relationship to incarceration, one in which we now have to figure out what to do with all these empty, peculiar and often isolated buildings.

Public safety professionals, Gelb says, have learned much more than they knew 35 years ago about how to keep people from re-offending, and they have better tools to manage offenders without using prison cells (better treatment programs, GPS tracking devices, alcohol detection ignition locks in cars). The public has also grown weary of the War on Drugs that helped fuel our prison boom. Last month, Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana. And California voters passed a referendum de-fanging the state’s strict “three strikes” law. Even political antipodes from Newt Gingrich to the ACLU have been jointly backing prison reform.

In this context, all of these facilities start to represent a new problem. By definition – they were built to be bedrock-secure, to serve a purpose unlike any other building genre. Prisons will be particularly difficult to re-purpose.

"The really interesting thing is that a lot of the buildings we build in America aren’t really built to last," says architect Lorenzo Lopez. "But prisons are sort of the exception there. They are built to last a long, long time."

Many of them have also been built to last in rural communities, where the options for reuse will be even more limited.

"This is very new territory," says Nicole Porter, the director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, which is set this Friday to release its latest report on America’s declining prison population. "These are questions that are just starting to be asked."

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There are a handful of examples already in the U.S. of historic urban facilities more easily repurposed, or prisons and jails converted into the low-hanging fruit of the reuse field: mini-storage facilities for stuff instead of people.

The historic Charles Street Jail in Boston, closed in 1990, became the boutique Liberty Hotel in 2007 (although opinions vary on whether or not "Clink" is a tasteful name for its modern American cuisine restaurant). The Liberty reclaims some of the jail’s old architectural identity, crossbars and all. As a building, though, it was probably worth preserving regardless of its former use.

"The older more historic ones, typically jails in urban settings, often are powerful civic buildings that represent a textured history that’s worth preserving," says Liz Minnis, the chair of the American Institute of Architects’ Academy of Architecture for Justice. "And you can kind of make something good out of it."

In Lorton, Virginia, planning officials have spent more than a decade trying to figure out what to do with an unused former District of Columbia correctional facility built there nearly a century ago. Its historic value ties not just to the architecture of its buildings, but to the progressive-era ideals that informed them. Lorton Prison was the product of a 1908 Penal Commission appointed by Teddy Roosevelt to study the dingy, overcrowded conditions of prisons in the District. The Lorton Prison, originally set on farm land south of the city, was meant to be a place where prisoners would have access to sunlight through large windows, fresh air on the facility’s greens and productive work on its self-supporting farms. Look at the place through a different lens, and it practically resembles a college campus.

The East Reformatory Courtyard at Lorton. Courtesy of the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning.
The walled Lorton Penitentiary, planned for future retail and commercial use. Courtesy of the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning.

Fairfax County finally bought the 2,300-acre property in 2002 for $4.2 million. In the deal, the prison was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the deed to it required that the county attempt to preserve as many of the dozens of buildings as possible. “That was one of the reasons that the sale price was as low as it was,” says Chris Caperton, who is coordinating the project for the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning. “They knew it had potential for reuse, but they also knew it was an expensive proposition.”

One workhouse on the property has already been turned into an arts center. And with a masterplan now in hand (renaming the area "Laurel Hill"), the county is aiming to convert the walled penitentiary into retail, the dorm-like reformatories into one- and two-bedroom rental apartments, while building new townhomes on some of the green space.

"There will be reminders of the former life," Caperton says, "but there are some nice open spaces in the courtyards of these buildings, and I think that’ll really lend itself to a nice sense of community, a good place to build."

This sounds like a strange thing to say about a former prison facility, and it’s also a luxury – born of Lorton’s particular progressive roots – that many more recently built prisons will not share. So many other facilities lack historic import or any imagination. These buildings will obviously not become condos. But pull out the cellblocks, and maybe they could house museum collections, or tech startups, or data servers.

Beverly Prior, a San Francisco-based architect with HMC Architects, has been working with one California city police department hoping to convert unused jail space into something a more modern justice system needs: a DNA lab. Community leaders in Tallulah, Louisiana, had extensive plans to turn a juvenile prison there into a community college satellite, although that vision was scrapped in the state’s post-Katrina economy.

Educational facilities in rural communities might be one of the best ideas. Rural towns were often sold on prisons as a kind of economic stimulus. They represented not criminals coming to town, but jobs, and just as manufacturing and agricultural work was disappearing. Today, prison closings offer an opportunity to rethink the economies of these places, and to thoughtfully include local communities in the planning process in a way that did not happen when these mega-facilities were sighted there in the first place.

Ideas for retail or rental housing probably won’t work there.

"The problem with rural areas is that you’ve got these really expensive, large buildings – millions of square feet maybe – and no other economic activity around to reuse them,” says Raphael Sperry, an architect and Soros Justice Fellow who advocates for architects to stop designing new prison facilities. His point echoes the concerns of many upstate New York communities who opposed Gov. Cuomo’s plans to close prisons there. "You could turn it into something totally basic like mini storage," Sperry continues. "But how many mini storage units do the people of Crescent City, California, need?"

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The alternative, if we don’t re-purpose these buildings as they close, is that we may wind up with a landscape of empty, decaying prisons. Without new uses, they’d be costly to bulldoze, and even costlier to mothball for later reuse. This scenario is arguably what we get for overbuilding this infrastructure in the first place, but Tracy Huling, another Soros Justice Fellow, argues that it’s important we try to demonstrate that closed prisons can be “assets rather than albatrosses.”

This doesn’t mean re-purposing unworkable buildings for the sheer sake of making a point. But beyond the sustainability question, there is a philosophical one here.

“The prison expansion we did – and not everybody thinks about it this way -- it was a huge mistake, a really colossal mistake, a mistake from a public policy point of view, and it’s caused a tremendous amount of suffering, and real human tragedies for many, many families,” Sperry says. "In a way it’s like we built these prisons, and then we had to find people to put in there."

If we just raze the empty ones, would that be tantamount to behaving as if we’d never made that mistake in the first place?

From the 1920s through the 1960s, the U.S. incarceration rate remained remarkably stable. It wasn’t until the '70s that all of this changed, that we started both imprisoning more people and holding them in prison longer for the same crimes. Today, as the commonly quoted stat puts it, America has 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. The trend ultimately gave way to what researchers have called the “million dollar block” phenomenon. America has spent so much money incarcerating people, often from single blocks of particular urban neighborhoods, that we've made the criminal justice system “the predominant government institution” in these communities. What if we spent that money directly in these neighborhoods, Sperry asks, and not on imprisoning their residents elsewhere?

Re-purposing prisons would be one form of redirecting these resources we’ve already spent on incarceration. "It would sort of redeem us," Minnis suggests.

Steve Carter, a trained architect and planner who founded CGL Services, a firm that specializes in justice facilities, points out, though, that there are two sides to the question. From the sustainability angle, he argues, we should do whatever we can to save these structures.

"But on the other side of it, any reminder that in the Untied States we went through a 40-year era of just incarcerating far too many people – reaching for building solutions when we should have been talking about social solutions – any reminder of that, one could argue we ought to eliminate it," Carter says. "Just walk away, and say look, we made a mistake, but we learned from that mistake, we don’t want to be reminded that we overbuilt, that we tried to build ourselves out of a problem."

Top image: Sponner/Shutterstock.com

MORE ON THE ATLANTIC CITIES:

"Are America's Prison Towns Doomed?"

"What Does Preservation Mean in a City Without History?"

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.