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A guard tower at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which closed in 1971 and has since reopened as a museum and historic site.

Can Closed Prisons Be Repurposed to Mend the Harm They’ve Done?

by Prince Shakur

In June, New York City Mayor Eric Adams cut the ribbon on a new public project to convert the shuttered Spofford Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx into a mixed-use site that will include affordable housing and a cultural arts center. In his speech, Adams noted that he spent a night detained at Spofford as a 15-year-old. He called the redevelopment project a “new day” for the neighborhood and “so many young people who were traumatized” at the lockup, which closed in 2011.

This message of transformation and revitalization is part of a broader trend playing out across the country, as some communities move to repurpose closed prisons and jails to help address social issues. Although simply repurposing detention facilities cannot fully remedy the immense damage of the carceral system, it shows how the work of reforming and dismantling the prison system can move us towards a society centered around restorative justice and social wellness.

The last half-century has brought an interesting shift in our nation’s reliance on prisons. In the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s—an era of extreme sentencing and the so-called War on Drugs—the U.S. incarceration rate more than tripled amid a wave of racist and draconian policies passed under Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton. The prison population would finally reach a peak in 2008, before beginning a slow but steady decrease. But even before that decline, states had begun closing detention centers. Since 2000, 21 states have fully or partially closed at least one correctional facility, resulting in a national reduction of over 81,000 prison beds, according to an August report by The Sentencing Project.

As we evaluate the impact of prisons and jails and determine what should take their place, it’s important to note that carceral facilities operate beyond their perceived public safety function. Prisons and jails frequently serve as housing for vulnerable people who are disproportionately struggling with homelessness or mental illness. Many communities also rely on them as economic engines that provide jobs and cheap or unpaid labor.

But this reliance on carceral facilities comes at a massive social, economic, and environmental cost. The conditions present in jails like New York’s Rikers Island have been proven to lead to lasting mental health issues and a crisis of detainee death by suicide. The families of incarcerated people also face additional financial burdens, including steep prices to maintain contact with their loved ones, court fees, and beyond. And, one-third of prisons are built within three miles of toxic superfund sites. The environmental impact of prisons only further harms the health of the surrounding communities and the people inside those facilities.

These factors alone provide a compelling case for closing prisons and jails and redirecting resources toward addressing the damage they’ve done. Once closed, officials can finally begin cleaning up polluted sites around detention centers to prevent further harm to nearby communities. But closing prisons and jails can also save jurisdictions millions of dollars a year—money that can instead be invested in reentry services or other social support specifically designed to confront issues often tied to incarceration.

Around the country, we are seeing more and more examples of how we can shift from a punitive to a restorative notion of justice by transforming carceral facilities. In Manhattan, a former jail is set to be repurposed to include at least 60 units for affordable housing, following a failed 2019 proposal to turn the building into a women’s center. In Philadelphia, the Eastern State Penitentiary, which pioneered the “all-seeing” architectural design by John Haviland that many prisons use today, is now a museum that explores the failures of the criminal justice system.

In 2013, community leaders in Gainesville, Florida, collaborated with Alachua County officials to convert a local correctional facility into Grace Marketplace, a center that provides food, housing, and support to people experiencing houselessness. In North Carolina, a closed prison saw a similar transformation when it was turned into Haywood Pathways Center, which serves as a homeless shelter and in-patient recovery facility that provides resources to help people find work and stable housing.

Both Haywood Pathways Center and Grace Marketplace show what is possible when defunct carceral facilities are repurposed into institutions that invest in—rather than extract from—the most disadvantaged members of a community.

But just because a jail or prison is being repurposed doesn’t mean it will work toward the goal of undoing past harms. While Adams pitches the Spofford project as an opportunity to heal trauma, a statewide commission on repurposing prisons in New York is promising “innovative redevelopment opportunities,” including retail shops and office space.

We have also seen prison reuse projects, no matter how good their intentions, make missteps. When the Lorton Reformatory, a closed prison in Northern Virginia, was turned into a mixed-use development, the community art center that launched on the site faced pushback in 2020 over its decision to host a “Nightmare Prison” event for Halloween.

If repurposed jails and prisons are going to live up to their potential as a restorative force in a community, they must present solutions based on the needs of the local community—and at a bare minimum, avoid trivializing the harms that once took place there.


In the news


In 2015, a woman alleged that she had a sexual relationship with a correctional officer while detained at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. Seven years later, in June of this year, he was fired. “I’m a nobody, but somebody actually believed my words,” she said. “It felt vindicating.” [The Marshall Project and The City / Reuven Blau and Keri Blakinger]

Since 2020, at least 28 people have died at Arizona’s Pima County Adult Detention Complex. Wade Welch died at the jail after at least one guard repeatedly tased him. As he was dying, one guard said, “He’s faking his ass off.” [John Washington / Arizona Luminaria]

Private-equity-backed companies are offering exonerees cash advances at exorbitant interest rates while they wait for financial compensation. Huwe Burton was wrongfully convicted of killing his mother when he was a teenager. After he was exonerated, he filed a civil suit and took an advance of $500,000 from USClaims. Within 16 months, the loan had accumulated $210,000 in interest. [Corey Kilgannon / The New York Times]

An Ohio judge declared Ru-El Sailor wrongfully imprisoned, which will allow him to receive compensation from the state. He was convicted in 2003 of a murder he did not commit and exonerated in 2018. [Matthew Richmond / WKSU]

Carla J. Simmons writes on the trauma of incarceration. “I panic when I see a guard,” she writes. “I panic when I see the violent groups that coalesce in the absence of guards. I panic in the morning and at night. I am always alert.” [Carla J. Simmons / Scalawag]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

A new report details Colorado’s practice of using painful metal four-point restraints on people with mental illness. One person was strapped to a cot in this manner for 39 straight days.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate now and your donation will be tripled here.

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