Since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 94 prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of over 48,000 prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $345 million, says The Sentencing Project. The opportunity to downsize has been brought about by declines in prison populations and increasing challenges of managing older facilities. The changes have created the opportunity to repurpose closed prisons for a range of uses outside of the correctional system, including a movie studio, a distillery, and urban redevelopment. Four states – New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and California – have reduced their prison populations by over 20 percent.
In recent years, 29 states have scaled back the scope and severity of their mandatory sentencing policies. California voters approved ballot initiatives in 2012 and 2016 that curbed the state’s notoriously broad “three strikes and you’re out” law and expanded parole eligibility. California and Oklahoma voters also authorized reclassifying certain felonies as misdemeanors. As for the facilities themselves, entrepreneurs, elected officials and community leaders in a handful of states have reimagined sites that once incarcerated prisoners for new uses. In New York City, the nonprofit Osborne Association is working to convert a closed women’s prison into a space that provides services to women leaving incarceration. An entrepreneur in California purchased a closed correctional facility and plans to convert it into a medical marijuana cultivation center. At least four states – Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia – have made closed prisons into tourist destinations open to visitors and host Halloween events. Other new purposes for closed prisons include a small farm incubator, homeless shelter, and a museum.