Can Closed Prisons Be Turned Into “Assets Rather than Albatrosses”?


With some prison populations declining and institutions closing, what will happen to the facilities? That question is asked by The Atlantic Cities, noting that because prisons “were built to be bedrock-secure,” they “will be particularly difficult to re-purpose.” Many of them have been built to last in rural communities, where the options for reuse will be even more limited. “This is very new territory,” says Nicole Porter of the Sentencing Project, which is set today to issue its latest report on the declining prison population. “These are questions that are just starting to be asked.”

At the former Lorton prison complex in northern Virginia, a former workhouse has been turned into an arts center. Fairfax County aims to convert the walled penitentiary into retail, the dorm-like reformatories into one- and two-bedroom rental apartments, while building new townhomes on some of the green space. Some former cellblocks could house museum collections, or tech startups, or data servers. Will there be a landscape of empty, decaying prisons? Without new uses, they'd be costly to bulldoze, and even costlier to mothball for later reuse. This scenario is arguably what we get for overbuilding this infrastructure in the first place, but Tracy Huling, a Soros Justice Fellow, who argues that it's important to demonstrate that closed prisons can be “assets rather than albatrosses.”

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