States Struggle to Find New Uses for Closed Prisons

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The end of the line for Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain penitentiary came in 2009, when the state closed the century-old facility. The local landmark sat unused until Pete Waddington came upon it and hatched a plan to turn the 280-acre site into a distillery, with a restaurant and prison tours, Governing reports. After he overcomes many bureaucratic obstacles, Waddington figures the distillery will finally open next spring. It is a rare example of how states and local communities can transform empty prisons that had been a cornerstone of the local economy into other productive uses. Old, closed prisons have been turned into hotels, homeless shelters and museums. Others have been proposed as movie studios, commercial real estate and farming incubators. Seeing these proposals to fruition is the hard part.

Since 2011, at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities, resulting in the elimination of more than 48,000 state prison beds, says the Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration. The closures are the result of a changing focus in the criminal justice system. The former prisons have often been exempt from building codes they would have to abide by in other capacities. Many communities hope that the state will once again need their correctional facilities, which would bring back jobs without a major effort. As unlikely as those prospects are, they would be dashed if the prison grounds were used for another purpose. Obstacles to other uses can be overcome with strong local leadership, says the Sentencing Project’s Nicole Porter. “The state should take responsibility in working with those local communities to think through what might be next,” she says.

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