What do American prison towns do with mothballed prisons?

Much of the US has seen a prison-building boom in the post-war era, with hundreds of new local, state and Federal correctional facilities erected to house more than 2.2 million inmates.

But in recent years, many states have worked to reverse that trend shrinking their prison populations.  In some parts of the country that means surplus prisons.

Many are located in communities that already lost factories, mines and farms.

So what happens when yet another industry leaves town?  What do middle-aged men and women who’ve worked in corrections their entire careers do next?

“In 2012, at least six states have closed 20 prison institutions or are contemplating doing so, potentially reducing prison capacity by over 14,100 beds and resulting in an estimated $337 million in savings,” reported Nicole Porter with a group called the Sentencing Project, in a survey published last December.
“During 2012, Florida led the nation in prison closings with its closure of 10 correctional facilities; the state’s estimated cost savings for prison closings totalsover $65 million. This year’s prison closures build on closures observed in 2011 when at least 13 states reported prison closures and reduced prison capacity by an estimated 15,500 beds.”

That may be great news for prison reform advocates, and for taxpayer advocacy groups.  But for rural towns, it’s a scary time.

In New York state alone, officials are trying to auction or repurpose 11 former correctional and juvenile justice facilities.  Two more prisons will shut down this year.

“If they’re going to try to sell this [prison], I wish them all the luck,” says former prison guard Mark Siskavitch, who grew up in the North Country village of Lyon Mountain, New York, where the local correctional facility closed in 2011.

“But I don’t see that happening.  I don’t see another use for it.”

Even some strong advocates of downsizing the prison industry say more focus needs to be placed on finding new economic options for rural towns.

“What happens to these communities?” asks Christopher St. John, co-producer of a pro-reform documentary called The House I Live In that focuses in part on the economic debate over mass incarceration.

“It’s certainly a valid question — in the same way that I think we failed to find alternative economies for inner cities as light and heavy industries left.”

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