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As incarceration rate drops, U.S. prisons are being turned into homeless shelters

Local communities have repurposed closed prisons in many ways, including using them as homeless shelters, centers for troubled teens, movie studios, etc.

As incarceration rate drops, U.S. prisons are being turned into homeless shelters
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/Marianne Purdie

An October 2020 report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the percentage of U.S. residents who are in prison has dropped 17% since 2009. The incarceration rate dropped further last year when the Coronavirus pandemic forced many prisons to furlough at-risk inmates. As per a study by the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice, by late 2020, the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails had declined to about 1.8 million, in contrast to approximately 2.1 million in 2019. As a result of this drop in incarceration, many prisons have been closed, giving local communities the opportunity to repurpose them for better causes.


According to Associated Press, 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities across the U.S. closed between 2011 and 2016. "Given the dropping crime rates, COVID, and state budget crises, there have been discussions to close prisons in several other states as well," said Nicole Porter, the director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, which tracks prison closures. Meanwhile, the owners of several private prisons have filled beds by entering into contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold immigrant detainees. "The danger in having prisons that are not either repurposed or, to be honest, torn down, is that there will always be an incentive to lock more people up," said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.


Several communities have come up with creative solutions to this by repurposing closed prisons in various ways, including using them as homeless shelters, centers for troubled teens, and in at least one case, a movie studio. Here are some of the different purposes America's jails serve now:

1. Homeless Shelters

The shutting down of the Gainesville Correctional Institution as part of budget cuts nine years ago came at a time when community leaders in Gainesville, Florida, were looking for a solution to the area's homeless problem. Recognizing the opportunity that opened up, the city acquired the former correctional institution, removed the razor wire surrounding the premises, planted trees, and painted the walls in welcoming bright colors. The institution found a new purpose as GRACE Marketplace, a 135-bed center providing dormitory-style temporary housing and other services for the homeless.


"We're the only homeless shelter in the universe that improved the property values when we moved in," said Jon DeCarmine, the executive director of GRACE. "There were adaptations that were required to make it something that worked. But, overall the benefits for the community and people we serve have far outweighed any hassles of moving into a facility that had been used in a different way previously." The Haywood Correctional Center in Waynesville, North Carolina, has a similar story. With the help of TV renovation guru Ty Pennington, homeless advocates "flipped" the property to provide shelter and aid to those in need.


"We inherited an already-there commercial kitchen, so that's a really huge expense that we just didn't have," said Mandy Haithcox, the executive director of what is now the Haywood Pathways Center. "Basically, we had to buy some furniture and move people in. I think it's a really good use of space and I wish more people would do it."

2. Educational Farm

Over in Wagram, North Carolina, the former Scotland Correctional Center now serves troubled teens and veterans as a sustainable educational farm called GrowingChange. The project, which is a work in progress, began in 2011 when charitable organizations, local government, and universities teamed up to provide training in activities such as beekeeping and vermicomposting. Cells that once housed inmates became aquaponic tanks. The farm's produce — eggs, compost, and livestock — is sold to the local community. Noran Sanford, the founder of GrowingChange, revealed that the youth leaders of the project also envision bringing in a recreational component by turning the guard tower into a climbing wall and zip line.


3. Movie Studio

Broadway Stages purchased the former Arthur Kill Correctional Facility on Staten Island in New York in 2017 and has since transformed it into a film and television studio. Samara Schaum, a spokeswoman for Broadway Stages, explained that while much of the prison has been preserved in its original state to lend authenticity to scenes in productions of the likes of Orange is the New Black and Oceans Eight, the 69-acre site will soon be home to five other sound stages. These, she said, will enable production companies to shoot entire projects on there. Repurposing the facility has reportedly created about 40 permanent jobs and each production that comes in brings between 200-300 people.


"And to the extent that they can, they like to use local restaurants for food, local businesses for craft services anything that they need," she said. "That's part of the identity of Broadway Stages. I know that it has had a positive impact on local businesses there."

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