This fall, a sports village called The Yard opened on 36 acres in Warwick, a rural community a few hours north of New York City. Athletes of all ages come to practice and play on the facility’s indoor and outdoor turf fields, reports the Christian Science Monitor. An unusual sight greets patrons at the entrance: The main gate is crowned with sparkling razor wire, while an empty guard tower rises at its side. It is a former prison. “When people come here, that’s the uniqueness of The Yard,” says Tony Abbatine, who bought the property in 2014. Mid-Orange Correctional Facility closed in 2011, one of 15 prisons that New York State has shuttered in the past four years. In all, at least 17 states have reduced their prison capacity since 2011, resulting in 35,000 fewer beds at a minimum, says The Sentencing Project.
What happens to prison properties after they close, as well as the towns that were economically dependent on them, has been largely absent from policy discussions on sentencing reform. “That needs to change, says Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project. “Towns need to start thinking about this, but it would also behoove relevant states to begin thinking about this, too.” Some are hailing the efforts in New York as a model for how communities can survive and even benefit from the economic blow of a prison closure. In Warwick, the town's local development corporation bought part of the prison property from the state and marketed the real estate to potential redevelopers itself. Several other communities have seen new enterprises spring up on former prison grounds. “If they’re going to continue to depopulate the [national] prison system, yes, they have to be paying attention to those communities when they close,” says Tracy Huling, an expert on rural prisons who curates the website YesInMyBackyard.org, which is about reusing correctional facilities.