How to Redevelop Former Jails and Prisons for the Collective Good

Since 2000, 21 states have closed or partially closed at least one correctional facility. The spaces left behind are opportunities to revitalize communities and economies.
Elizabeth Allen Editorial Assistant
Apr 30, 2024
The Lorton Reformatory in Lorton, Va., in 2013. An example of "adaptive reuse" redevelopment, it is now an expansive multi-use complex, featuring housing, retail, and more new establishments.

“It makes me think of the passing of time, how places can improve,” Francis Cordor told The Economist of buying a home at the Liberty Crest Apartments in Lorton, Virginia, outside of Washington, DC. Circa 1910, Liberty Crest’s distinctive red brick walls were constructed by its first occupants: incarcerated people.

Over the past several years, the former Lorton Reformatory has been transformed into a sprawling multi-use complex called Liberty Market. In addition to the Liberty Crest housing, there’s a preschool, gym, medical offices, retail shops, and restaurants. Although the complex’s infrastructure distinctly recalls its history—eight watchtowers still stand—functionally, it has been created anew.

Lorton Reformatory is one of the many defunct prisons and jails overhauled for new purposes—a sustainability strategy called “adaptive reuse.” With the United States correctional population in continued decline—dropping more than 20 percent between 2011 and 2021—so, too, are correctional facilities. Twenty-one states have partially or fully closed at least one facility since 2000, and a recent study counted nearly 200 state and federal prisons that ceased operations between 2000 and 2022. More facilities have closed, or been announced to, since then. (Even so, closures and capacity downsizing still have not kept pace with population declines.)

Jail and prison closures—and their subsequent reinventions—are a growing trend, though not a new one. In 2007—around the same time that mass incarceration peaked nationally—the once-Charles Street Jail reopened in Boston as a luxury hotel, the Liberty, featuring a restaurant gauchely named Clink.

That both institutions were rechristened “Liberty” captures the complicated nature of redeveloping such sites. Incarceration is the antithesis of personal liberty. Even more, correctional institutions can be known for abuse and exploitation, and some have been formally accused of civil liberties and human rights violations. It raises the question of whether there’s a particular responsibility to acknowledge and memorialize the pasts of these spaces and the appropriate ways to do so.

Why are jails and prisons closing?

In January, the Massachusetts Department of Correction (MADOC) cited “decreased housing needs and the aging facility’s high maintenance costs” when confirming that its Concord prison would close—the second in the past year. Massachusetts’s prison population is at its lowest in 35 years, MADOC noted, with the state’s incarceration rate having fallen by almost half in the past 10 years.

The conditions that MADOC describes resemble other states where leadership has acted similarly. Often, the upkeep and repairs necessary to remain operational are deemed not worth it, especially when—exacerbated by the surplus infrastructure built during the “Prison Boom” of 1970–2000—many facilities are under-occupied.

In 2023, the Washington Department of Corrections announced its first prison closure in more than a decade, invoking the property’s “millions of dollars” in needed repairs and dwindling population. Colorado’s Custer County Jail also shut down last year, with the county undersheriff explaining that it “did not make financial sense” to keep the near-vacant jail open.

New York has closed more than 20 prisons in the last 15 years, and Governor Kathy Hochul recently proposed closing another five, which estimates suggest would save $77 million for the state in fiscal year 2025 and $128 million in the first full year after implementation.

California has recently closed two prisons, with two more slated to shutter. The state has slashed the number of people behind bars by more than 40 percent since 2006, in part to comply with a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce its incarcerated population. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office has recommended the governor close a further five, saving roughly $1 billion annually in operational costs.

The mixed response to jail and prison closures

Some Californians have pushed back against prison closures for financial reasons. Susanville, the subject of the documentary Prison Town, USA, sued the state over plans to close one of the city’s two prisons, California Correctional Center (CCC), because of the potential impact on residents, many of whom work for or are otherwise economically tied to the facilities. The lawsuit was dismissed, and CCC, which would have needed $503 million in repairs, closed last year.

That dynamic is a legacy of mass incarceration. In the 1990s, a new prison was built in a rural area in the United States roughly every 15 days—with the facilities becoming a direct or peripheral source of jobs for the surrounding community. Such aggressive expansion has proven unsustainable. Research has also shown that the perceived economic boost can be a mirage—in Upstate New York, towns “were no better off economically than they were before building the prison,” an analysis found. Meanwhile, mass incarceration has not increased safety and, indeed, has become costly in myriad ways.

Closures can ultimately be a net positive for everybody. With the associated savings, governments have an opportunity to reinvest in people and communities.

New opportunities for former staff

Preserving economies based on locking people up isn’t tenable—nor does it actually work, according to the research—yet, the anxiety felt by people whose employment is tied to the corrections industry is real. “No one dreams of being a prison guard,” California budget advocate Brian Kaneda told The New York Times. “It’s because they have no option.”

Done thoughtfully, redevelopment can bring community renewal. Places previously monopolized by carceral jobs can diversify their industries, and commercial ventures can help drive local economies. Former facilities, too, can be restored for reconciliation and reparation—as commemorative, educational sites or ones addressing the root causes of criminal legal system involvement.

“Prisons should not be jobs programs,” said Benjamin Heller of Vera’s Greater Justice New York initiative, whose policy focus includes rightsizing the corrections workforce. “People seeking financial stability should have more options than working in corrections.” Rather than keeping facilities open for the sake of jobs, Heller said, current and prospective corrections staff should have opportunities to transition to well-paid careers in safer, nascent industries.

How to repurpose jail and prison land and infrastructure

Communities nationwide are tapping into the real estate and funds generated by shuttered facilities to invest in local amenities and resources. Here are how some properties are being repurposed:


Upon its completion in 2026, The Peninsula—replacing New York City’s Spofford Juvenile Detention Center—will be comprised of 740 exclusively affordable housing units, childcare and wellness centers, art and dance studios, a co-working space, a supermarket, outdoor space, and more. Spofford was notorious for its harsh treatment of detained youth, who were disproportionately people of color (95 percent were Black or Latinx) and from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The complex will begin to provide redress for the conditions—like housing insecurity or insufficient childhood support—that helped lead to the system-involvement of the children once held there.

Construction on Seneca—an affordable housing complex named for the 19th century historically Black community that was razed to create Central Park—is expected to begin next year at the former Lincoln Correctional Facility in Harlem. With the city’s housing crisis at its worst in 50 years, Seneca’s 105 units are critical.

Industry and commerce

In Staten Island, New York, Broadway Stages invested $20 million to convert the former Arthur Kill Correctional Facility into a 67-acre film and television sound stage campus. The studio established 40 permanent jobs and, when in use, creates between 200 and 300 additional ones.

Agriculture, parks and recreation

After North Carolina’s Scotland Correctional Center Wagram location closed in 2001, it sat decaying for a decade until the nonprofit GrowingChange stepped in. Today, with a no-cost lease from the state, it has been transformed into a farm staffed by local teenagers who are system-impacted or have mental health and substance use conditions. GrowingChange addresses multiple needs: youth support services; housing for returning community members; accessible, fresh produce for locals (one-fourth of county residents experience food insecurity); and, with its onsite museum, recognition of the property’s history of chain gang labor. The results are remarkable: in its first five years, the program’s prevention rate for entry into the adult correctional system was 92 percent.

This year, on the site of what was known as “Texas’ worst state jail” (Dawson State Jail) a conservancy group in Dallas will break ground on the 250-acre Harold Simmons Park. Colloqate Design—a firm dedicated to using the built environment for “racial, social, and cultural justice”—has consulted on the project, which aims to connect downtown with surrounding neighborhoods and is forecasted to have over 6 billion in economic impact.

Social and community services

Volunteers supported the remodeling of Florida’s Gainesville Correctional Institution into Grace Marketplace—the barbershop became a social services office and the substance testing site a locker room. Grace has provided emergency and long-term accommodations, meals, medical care, and social services to people experiencing homelessness for the past decade. In the organization’s first two years, chronic homelessness in Gainesville was halved, an achievement the city’s former mayor says Grace was pivotal in.

Building thriving, just communities

These are only some ways former correctional institutions can be reimagined—the possibilities are vast. Billy Fleming, faculty at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and his students have proposed revamping eligible defunct facilities into renewable energy microgrids (federal prisons built since the 1990s have been required to have their own independent power grids, making them ideal sites). In St. Louis, “The Workhouse,” a former jail known for abuse and penal labor, finally closed in 2022, and options floated have included returning the land to Indigenous tribes.

Jail and prison closures are an opportunity to reallocate energy, funds, space, and personnel toward collectively beneficial enterprises that help foster thriving and just communities. As incarcerated populations shrink and more redundant facilities shutter, land redevelopment and adaptive reuse stand to be effective avenues for positive impact, ensuring that the resources mass incarceration previously ensnared—land, infrastructure, and human—are utilized for the collective good.