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As More Prisons Shutter, Governments Wonder What to Do With Them

Distilleries? Homeless shelters? Museums? There are lots of creative ideas for repurposing old lockups. But finding one that’s good for the economy – and wins approval – isn’t easy.

by Daniel C. Vock,

From the moment he saw Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, Pete Waddington wanted to turn the shuttered prison deep in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee into a tourist destination.

It hasn’t been easy.

The effort started four years ago when Waddington, a businessman from Chattanooga, rode his motorcycle on a wooded route nicknamed the Devil’s Triangle. The path took him through dense forest to a clearing where several flagpoles stood next to a closed prison gate. The prison, Waddington later learned, was considered so remote, the chances of escape so daunting, the prisoners’ crimes so serious, that state officials called Brushy Mountain “the end of the line.”

The maximum-security prison, which opened in 1896, initially had its prisoners mining coal in the nearby mountains. Later, after Tennessee lawmakers banned that practice, the prisoners quarried limestone out of those same mountains for a new prison building named The Castle.

The end of the line for the state penitentiary itself came in 2009. That’s when the state closed the century-old facility. The local landmark sat unused until Waddington came upon it and hatched a plan to turn the 280-acre site into a distillery, with a restaurant and prison tours.

To do so, Waddington and other supporters of the plan had to convince the county, which is otherwise dry, to let him sell End of the Line Moonshine. He also had to persuade the legislature to let the county use a portion of the sales tax revenues generated at the distillery to pay for infrastructure improvements. Other state officials had to sign off on relinquishing state property, which they eventually did. They gave it to the county’s economic development commission to lease to Waddington and his investors. Waddington figures the distillery will finally open next spring.

Brushy Mountain 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. But actually seeing these proposals to fruition is the hard part – even as the need to repurpose them is an increasingly urgent problem.

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 and an estimated cost savings of over $345 million, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group pushing for alternatives to incarceration. The closures are the result of a changing focus in the criminal justice system, with a move away from imposing lengthy sentences for offenders to one that emphasizes rehabilitation.

But that leaves dozens of former facilities sitting unused. Like Brushy Mountain, many are far from urban areas or even interstates. These old prisons have often been exempt from building codes that they would have to abide by in their new capacities. Just the fact that the properties are owned by a state can add restrictions to how they can be used in the future.

Denial can be a powerful detriment, too. 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.

Those obstacles can be overcome with strong local leadership, says Nicole Porter, the director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. Local officials could use their sway to gather ideas from government, business and nonprofit leaders in the area. They could also consider the unique characteristics of the site to come up with a plan. One of the reasons Waddington wants a distillery at Brushy Mountain, for instance, is that it has natural springs on the grounds.

A viable plan is a heavy lift, especially for local leaders who may not have had a say in closing the prison in the first place. “I empathize with the challenges that local officials must deal with when they get word that a closure is going to happen,” Porter says. “The state should take responsibility in working with those local communities to think through what might be next.”

But even state and local officials who aren’t currently dealing with the issue should keep their eye on creative attempts to reuse prisons, she adds, because with all the newly vacant prisons in the country, they will likely confront similar challenges in the future.

There are success stories out there. Pennsylvania revamped Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to become a public museum that features haunted tours in the fall. In Boston, a former county jail is now a high-end hotel called Liberty. In 2015, New York state handed over the keys to the minimum-security Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx to the Osborne Association, a prison reform group, to refurbish it to house former prisoners, provide them job training and help them adjust to their new lives. And in Florida, the city of Gainesville and Alachua County turned a 507-bed prison in a wooded area into a full-service facility for homeless people. Government officials worked with nonprofit groups to renovate the buildings so that they don’t feel like a prison. Today, the city and county offer services out of the center such as substance abuse and mental health counseling, help signing up for Medicaid and food stamps, and access to showers, restrooms, meals and clothing storage.

Perhaps the most radical transformation is slated for a prison in Staten Island. It could soon become a film studio. A company called Broadway Stages inked the deal with New York state in August 2017 to buy the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility for $7 million. The company has promised to complete $20 million worth of renovations, which will create five soundstages covering a total of 100,000 square feet. The renovations will allow film crews to use the existing buildings for prison scenes, as well as other projects. In fact, Arthur Kill has already been used on NBC’s “The Blacklist” and the film Ocean’s Eight, which is expected to be released this summer.

The path to repurpose was not smooth, however. The intrusion of politics delayed the deal between Broadway Stages and the Empire State Development Corporation for three years after the company initially won its bid. The state comptroller’s office blocked the sale because company CEO Gina Argento’s fundraising efforts were being investigated by federal prosecutors: She contributed to a political campaign and a nonprofit led by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. After a year-long investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced in March 2017 that it would not bring charges.

Both Arthur Kill and Fulton are among the 13 prisons New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has closed since 2011. New York created tax credits and a $50 million capital program to help communities affected by those closures. Even with that support, it’s been difficult to find new purposes for many of the facilities, particularly those upstate. But Porter says New York’s program should be a model for other states since most shutter prisons without warning or any assistance for the affected communities.

That’s what happened with the Hanna City Work Camp in central Illinois. “They closed the work camp and physically walked away,” says Scott Sorrel, the Peoria County administrator. Papers were left on desks. Dishes were still sitting on tables. “They abandoned it. Literally.”

That was more than a dozen years ago, and local officials still haven’t found a good use for it – though not without trying. The local sheriff convinced state legislators to transfer the property to the county so that his department could turn it into a training facility. The idea was to use it as a firing range for local police departments, including the sheriff’s office, and maybe add a commercial component. But the county didn’t have any money to remodel the work camp, and interest waned when another training facility opened. Later, a county board member proposed turning the property into a farming incubator to help people learn how to grow crops other than the dominant corn and soybeans in the area, and to act as a distribution center for locally grown food. But that idea never took hold.

Along with a lack of consensus about what to do with the work camp, the county must contend with restrictions on the land from the federal government. The state inherited the property from the Army after World War II. The Federal Aviation Administration still owns a radar facility for high-flying aircraft there, which means no steel structures can be built nearby. Plus, the federal government stipulated that the land must be used for a public purpose, a constraint that effectively bars any private use. Peoria-area officials have talked to anyone who would listen in Springfield or Washington to remove the restrictions, to no avail. “It’s been nothing but a pain,” Sorrel says. It doesn’t help that the Hanna City site is far from the city, with old structures that contain both lead and asbestos.

Those certainly aren’t issues for the former Dawson State Jail in Texas. The 10-story tower built in 1995 sits on a prime location in downtown Dallas. The only restriction on its future use is that it not house prisoners.

Stan McClure, a real estate agent who is overseeing the Dawson site, says potential buyers love the location, especially the views from the roof. The former prison sits right along the Trinity River, near a park that’s being redeveloped, and it’s not far from several gentrifying neighborhoods. But the immediate vicinity is the problem. The tower sits next to the county jail and court buildings, and has very little parking of its own. Plus, limited road access deterred a potential buyer who wanted to make a distillery there, complete with a rooftop bar. A city council member and the city manager suggested using the tower to house homeless people, but the city manager left and the costs of buying the property appeared to be prohibitive. McClure suggested that public storage might be the best use for the building, because it doesn’t require much parking. Texas asked for bids for the property in June 2017, but by the end of October, no winner had been selected.

October marked a turning point in a five-year effort to transform an abandoned prison in Wagram, North Carolina. Located about 35 miles southwest of Fayetteville, it’s on its way to becoming an environmentally friendly farm and education center for troubled teens and veterans. A group called Growing Change worked on the concept for several years, starting off as “polite squatters,” says the group’s founder, Noran Sanford. Eventually, the program attracted the interest of state agencies, eight universities and a growing list of nonprofit organizations. They wanted to show that they could improve the lives of youth who were at risk of going to prison. The teenagers were recruited for key leadership positions and were involved in the design and operations of the facility. Researchers tracked how they did over five years, and found that the program was 92 percent effective in preventing them from going to prison. With that track record, North Carolina transferred control of 57 acres to Growing Change in March 2017.

The grand opening in late October coincided with the first harvest in 30 years on the farm portion of the site. Growing Change partnered with the local park district and invited the community to join the festivities. They gave out 320 pumpkins for kids to paint during a harvest festival, led zombie tours through the prison buildings, and offered wine and cheese tastings for the adults.

The group has big plans for the site in the years to come. It will build a climbing wall on an old guard tower, add onsite housing for veterans to mentor youth while working toward college degrees, and convert old cells into aquaponic tanks that raise fish and support the soil-free cultivation of crops. It will develop a museum about North Carolina’s use of work camps. The group is even working with Duke University and the Durham School of the Arts (a magnet school for 6th to 12th graders) to develop a virtual reality program to show people the current condition of the Wagram prison and how it will look if Growing Change successfully carries out its master plan.

Growing Change, though, is also looking beyond its current site. The group’s goal, Sanford says, is to help communities across the country implement similar processes for transforming prisons. With two dozen closed prisons, he says, “North Carolina is ground zero to answer the new question of what to do with old prisons.” Visitors have already come from Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York and South Carolina to see what they can learn from Growing Change’s efforts. The group was even taken to Amsterdam to give a presentation to members of the Dutch parliament.

What Sanford hopes to share with other communities are lessons in how to develop local leadership, and to make sure that their transformation projects are economically viable over the long term. “We’re developing a replicable model, not a scalable model. We’re not going to be running facilities for them,” he says. “We’re giving the model away.” 

This article was originally published by in December 2017; it is reprinted with permission, with minor edits.


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