Advocates’ efforts to end mass incarceration focus on prison population reductions; those efforts have made prison closures possible in some states. The Sentencing Project recently co-hosted a webinar with the Youth First Initiative and discussed how declines in state incarceration levels can lead to transforming closed adult and youth prisons. Lessons for stakeholders include prioritizing prison population reduction efforts and planning for prison repurposing.
Reducing State Prison Populations
Since 2016, most states have modestly reduced their prison populations. These prison population reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and term lengths. Changes in New Jersey led to a prison population reduction of 37% in 2016 from its peak in 1999. New York’s prison population also peaked in 1999, and through a combination of policy and practice changes that largely affected drug enforcement and sentencing in New York City, declined by 31% by 2016. Connecticut’s 28% decline in prison population since its 2007 peak has been attributed to policy shifts such as reducing prison admissions for technical parole and probation violations as part of the Second Chance Society Initiative and reclassifying drug possession offenses to misdemeanors. Several other states – including southern states such as Mississippi, South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana – experienced double digit percentage declines in their prison populations since their peak.
Campaign to Close Adult and Youth Prisons
These prison population reductions created opportunities to close correctional facilities. As of 2016, The Sentencing Project has found at least 22 states have closed or announced closures for 94 state correctional facilities, resulting in the elimination of over 48,000 prison beds and an estimated cost savings of over $345 million. A recent analysis by the Urban Institute found that between 1999 and 2015, the number of operational youth correctional facilities dropped 42 percent.
Stakeholders exploring strategies to close adult and youth prisons can look to several resources. The Youth First Initiative supports youth prison closure initiatives with a newly developed campaign toolkit for advocates. Several case studies document successful prison closure campaigns as well. Texas advocates successfully organized a prison closure effort of the Dawson State Jail, Louisiana advocates achieved closure of the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth, and organizers helped end family immigrant detention at the federal T. Don Hutto Correction Center.
Planning for Repurposing
The webinar discussion highlighted examples of repurposing correctional facilities for non-incarceration uses. Stakeholder conversations can point to practical transformations of closed adult and youth prisons. In Texas for example, the shuttered Al Price Juvenile Correctional Facility will become a hub for social services including housing and substance abuse recovery support. Florida officials repurposed the closed Gainesville Correctional Facility into a center for homeless residents. North Carolina’s GrowingChange flipped the closed Scotland Correctional Center into a working farm.
In North Carolina, GrowingChange youth leaders helped transform a closed state prison into a working farm. Source: GrowingChange
- California – Budget officials project the state is on pace to eliminate use of out-of-state prison contracts due to prison population reductions.
- Colorado – Lawmakers authorized persons on parole to preregister to vote by passing SB18-150.
- Connecticut – Lawmakers expanded the state’s racial impact statement policy with passage of SB 256. The measure requires statements to be prepared at the request of any lawmaker for certain policy proposals.
- Ohio – Residents will vote on reclassifying drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors through the Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation amendment.
- New Jersey – Senators passed S 761, a measure that would allow for the release of persons incarcerated for certain nonviolent offenses after they complete their minimum sentence.