Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Shuttered correctional facilities around the country are getting their own chance at reform.
Cash-strapped local governments are closing down more and more prisons, with 20 correctional facilities in six states slated for shutdown in 2013, according to a report by the Sentencing Project. In the past, vacant jailhouses have attracted little interest outside of graffiti artists and vandals. But lately they've caught the eye of developers, non-profit organizations, and other space-seekers who see in their restrictive walls a chance for a new start.
"It's a prison-by-prison story," says Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project. "There is no easy answer as to what makes one prison interesting to potential buyers. ... This is like new territory."
A prison's unique interior layout might seem like a barrier to prospective redevelopers, but it can also be a selling point. The way prisons are built lends itself to public and communal uses, architect Catherine Chan told The Marshall Project. The Arthur Kill Correctional Facility in New York, for instance, has generated interest as a potential movie lot.
One factor that comes into play in these deals, as with any other piece of real estate, is location. The site of a closed-down prison plays a part in whether it can be transformed, and what it might become. The Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan, for example, is surrounded by fancy restaurants and snazzy condos and expensive shops. Here's the Wall Street Journal on Bayview's fate:
The site would be perfect for luxury condos or even a hotel, developers said, but the state won't accept bids for residential uses—in an attempt to focus on promoting job growth and accommodating the desires of neighborhood residents.
A shuttered minimum security facility in upstate New York, Camp Georgetown, was auctioned off for over $240,000 in 2013. Its new owner wants to turn it into a camp for kids interested in science and technology in a place where they can fish, hike and explore nature.
Obviously, not every prison can be a transformed into—let's say—an industrial yoga studio. The market interest just isn't there for prisons in some rural areas or poor neighborhoods, says Noran Sanford of growingchange.org, an organization that promotes sustainable reuse of prison space. The group recently partnered with local government agencies and state universities to turn the defunct Scotland Correction Center in Wagram, North Carolina, into an urban farm-slash-community center for kids.
Sanford lists five other facilities in a 50-mile radius that are closed, and a lot of poverty-stricken areas that could use a safe place for kids to go. There's a lot of potential for social good in these empty spaces, he says.
"What to do with with these rusting tools of justice is itself a question of justice," Sanford says.
H/T: The Marshall Project