Monday, December 10, 2012

Prisons are closing, leaving rural communities with few options for repurposing them

The U.S. prison population started declining for the first time in decades in 2009. Since then officials have been closing prisons, which were once heralded as a growth industry, especially in rural areas. Last year, 13 states closed prisons or were in the process of doing so. Michigan has closed 22, New York will close seven and even Texas, whose prison population has tripled since the 1980s, is closing some. Last week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced prison population is declining for the third year in a row, and a new "arc is beginning to take shape," Emily Badger of The Atlantic reports. (Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning photo: former East Reformatory prison in Lorton, Va.)

The conventional narrative is that if budget cuts weren't so deep right now, prisons would be allowed to stay open, but Public Safety Performance Project director Adam Gelb said this isn't the case. The public, politicians and public safety professionals are fundamentally shifting the way they think about prisons, he told Badger. Police and court systems now have better ways to prevent re-offending, and have better tools to keep them out of prison cells, including treatment programs, GPS tracking, and alcohol detection ignition locks in cars. And the public "has grown weary of the War on Drugs that helped fuel our prison boom," Badger writes.

Now officials have to figure out what to do with now empty and often isolated buildings. "By definition, they were built to be bedrock-secure, to serve a purpose unlike any other building genre," Badger reports. There are cases of prisons being turned into storage facilities, but in rural areas, options for reuse are very limited. Educational facilities might be the best re-purposing idea in rural communities, Badger writes. Rural communities were sold on the idea of prisons as economic engines. Prison closings "offer an opportunity to rethink the economies of these places and to thoughtfully include local communities in the planning process," Badger writes. (Read more)

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