America Is Finally Closing Prisons. Now What Do We Do With Them? – Design – The Atlantic Cities
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.
Prisons will be particularly difficult to re-purpose.
“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.