Unlocking Ideas for Re-Purposing America's Prisons

The good news - America is closing its prisons. The bad news - America is closing its prisons. Emily Badger asks how "all these empty, peculiar and often isolated buildings" can be reused.

2 minute read

December 6, 2012, 12:00 PM PST

By Jonathan Nettler @nettsj


After decades of continuous growth, America's prison population declined in 2009, and has continued to decline since, owing to "a fundamental shift in thinking about prisons by the public, politicians and public safety professionals." In turn, it will be the job of designers, planners, and public officials to think about just what can be done with the dozens of prisons - which "were built to be bedrock-secure" and "to serve a purpose unlike any other building genre" - now being closed across the country.

"There are a handful of examples already in the U.S. of historic urban facilities more easily repurposed, or prisons and jails converted into the low-hanging fruit of the reuse field: mini-storage facilities for stuff instead of people," notes Badger. But many of these facilities were built in rural communities. Finding a new use for them will be a particular challenge.

DNA labs; server farms; offsite homes for museum collections - these are just some of the ideas being explored. Yet, says Badger, "[e]ducational facilities in rural communities might be one of the best ideas."

"Rural towns were often sold on prisons as a kind of economic stimulus. They represented not criminals coming to town, but jobs, and just as manufacturing and agricultural work was disappearing. Today, prison closings offer an opportunity to rethink the economies of these places, and to thoughtfully include local communities in the planning process in a way that did not happen when these mega-facilities were sighted there in the first place."

Thursday, December 6, 2012 in The Atlantic Cities

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