Adapting Jails and Prisons
By Michael McMillen, AIA (09/12/2012)

Creative Reuse of Vacant (Or Soon to Be) Spaces

I moved to Illinois in 1976, over 35 years ago, to take a job with the National Clearinghouse for Criminal Justice Planning and Architecture at the University of Illinois. I didn’t know much about prisons and jails then, but it wasn’t long before I found out they had become big business and were about to get even bigger.

The year of my move, a little over 11 million people lived in Illinois. That has not changed too much over the years. About 12.8 million people live here now, a 13 percent increase. In 1976, we had about 8,000 people in prison but then strange things began to happen. We decided to get tough on crime, and all sorts of legislation requiring mandatory-minimum sentences and truth-in-sentencing was passed. Forced releases, a means of controlling capacities, were eliminated. A wave of young adults passed through the courts system, and drug-related arrests exploded. And the legislature opened its pocketbook to build new beds in response.

Today in Illinois we have nearly 48,000 prisoners at state institutions. That’s right, six times as many as we had 35 years ago. Pretty dramatic, that 600 percent growth, compared to our 13 percent population growth in the state, but not out of the ordinary. The number of state prisoners in the United States has declined, according to Prison Count 2010, a survey by the Pew Center on the States, which revealed a national increase of 705 percent in prison population between 1970 and 2010. In fact, it found that by 2008 about 1 in 100 adults were living behind bars in the US. In Illinois spending on public safety constituted 2 percent of general fund spending in 1970.

Today it’s 4.2 percent, so a larger chunk of available monies goes to this sort of spending.

It sometimes seems like it’s getting out of hand. We now spend 12.5 times as much running our prisons today as we did back then, and only six times as much on our elementary and high schools. And the spending is getting harder and harder to support.

We built a lot of beds to hold all those additional inmates, and we spent a lot of money doing it. We even built a whole new prison here in Illinois, the Thomson Correctional Center, which we couldn’t afford to operate, so it sat empty. We got lucky when the Feds bought it and took it off our books. Even with today’s economy, it’s hard to walk away from all those buildings. And reducing staff is tough when everybody is clamoring for more jobs. Despite all of that, there’s talk about closing some of these beds down so that annual operating costs, and, more importantly, the state budget can be reduced. In this, Illinois is not alone. Nationwide, we have about 1.4 million state prisoners, up from 209,000 in 1973. Counting federal inmates, including those in city and county jails, we house 2.2 million prisoners.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Arrest and incarceration rates have been dropping for some time now (though people tend to stay longer), and, on the plus side, Pew Center on the States reported that in 2010, the number of prisoners nationally declined for the first time in nearly 40 years. Then, too, many jurisdictions have seen the success of less expensive alternative programs, and the documentation of such success (reduced recidivism), as a means of managing more inmates in the community. So, from a practical standpoint, prison capacity reductions are becoming more and more possible, and legislators are giving them a hard look in many states.

But what do we do with all those buildings we’ve paid for?

An Approach to Reuse

The simple answer is you reuse them for other purposes but that can be easier said than done in many cases. First of all, renovation and reconstruction costs can be extraordinarily high for secure facilities, even to convert them to non-secure functions. Sometimes the cost may equal or exceed new construction costs. So unless you have an unrestricted budget, you’d want to use existing buildings in ways that require limited remodeling. For example:

• Shops and warehouses could easily become industry space;

• School spaces might be converted for jobs training, alternative education, business start-ups, office support industries and “clean” vocations (electronics, computer service, etc.), day-treatment, and meeting and conference functions;

• Administrative offices could serve new businesses, local agencies (court services, city and county government) and not-for-profits;

• Recreation facilities such as gyms, fitness areas, and outdoor fields might support a variety of community activities, YMCA and Boys Club-type organizations, and even newly developed residential uses;

• Housing units, often with many small rooms and large dayroom areas, might easily serve new residential purposes for the justice system (mental health, drug treatment and other special populations, transitional lodging) with limited modification. Non-justice uses such as housing for the homeless and emergency shelters are also a possibility, as are industries, vocational training, libraries, industrial shops for businesses and agencies, and long-term storage for state and local agencies.

The point here is that justice facilities, if they become available when populations and funding decrease, may support a diverse range of other activities that benefit the community, local agencies and businesses. Sometimes the cost may be high, but at least existing physical plant is being used rather than mothballed (and the cost of mothballing can be pretty steep all by itself). And you have the benefit of a more sustainable, or “greener” approach to developing needed space that might attract external funding.

A Change of Direction

To illustrate this concept, let’s look at one facility that changed direction before it even was fully occupied. The Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Home in Portland, Ore., (Multnomah County), was designed for a capacity of about 190 juveniles in the early 1990s at the height of a juvenile population boom and fears about “super predators.” It contains 12 housing units of 16 beds arranged in pairs. Today, the facility operates at a total capacity of 64 juveniles using four of the 16-bed units. This astonishing capacity reduction occurred long before the reduced capacities now experienced nationally in juvenile detention thanks to the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in Multnomah County, a program supported by the Annie Casey Foundation.

Over the years, those empty housing units have been used for various purposes. One served as an assessment center for juveniles awaiting treatment or in transition to community-based services. Another provided secure custody for Latino youth held for the Department of Homeland Security while awaiting deportation. One unit now provides residential services for juveniles in a voluntary drug and alcohol treatment program, and this unit has been modified to include its own entry and a softer interior environment. Residents do not mix with the rest of the population.

Most recently, the facility, in cooperation with the Pacific Northwest College of Art, converted an entire housing unit into a vibrant library space available to all residents of the facility. All of these conversions required relatively limited expenditure. Sadly, five of the 16 bed housing units remain mothballed at this time, though administrators continue to look for opportunities to support the community.

It is worth noting that all reuse options explored by the Donald Long JDH have involved juvenile services of some sort. This results from looking for compatible activities, but the desire to retain control and ownership of a property by the original agency in charge will also have a bearing in selecting future uses. Populations may decline and funding may be short for a time, but many agencies may wish to preserve control of space…just in case. This will diminish the number of new use options that may be explored but may be unavoidable.

Other examples of facility reuse show the range of possibilities. The former Lorton Prison in Fairfax County, Va., once the primary correctional facility for the District of Columbia, ceased operations in 2001. Prior to that time, Congress passed the Lorton Technical Correction Act (1998) that required Fairfax County to develop a reuse plan for the facility and site in anticipation of transferring title to the county. A task force was appointed in 1999 and a reuse plan completed that same year. The last prisoners were moved in 2001, with title transferred to the county in 2002. Since that time, Fairfax County has redeveloped the site as the Laurel Hill Adaptive Reuse Area, with sites designated for schools and parks, specialty retail, new residential and civic uses.

One of the most notable features of the new campus plan is the Workhouse Arts Center, a cultural arts complex featuring artist studios, galleries, classes, arts education outreach, and musical and theatrical performances. Operated by the Lorton Arts Foundation, the center also hosts public and private events.

The Armory Arts Village, at the site of the former Jackson State Prison in Jackson, Mich., shares a focus on the arts as part of the redevelopment process. Existing prison buildings and new construction are used to create a unique, mixed-use neighborhood of apartments, workspace and galleries that attract artists, craftsmen and entrepreneurs and serve as an incubator for other business development.

The vacant Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pa., provided the raw material for another adaptive reuse project. Abandoned in 1993, civic groups sought to preserve the historic structure and save it from demolition. Many uses for the jail space were considered, and county officials ultimately decided to consolidate Family Court staff, then located at several crowded office buildings, at the jail site. Reconstruction began in 1998, and through a combination of creative financing and engineering, the building today serves as the Family Division of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, with more than 400 Family Court employees occupying 200,000 square feet in the remodeled facility.

There are many converted jails and prisons worldwide that now serve as hotels, like the former Charles Street Jail in Boston, now the Liberty Hotel.

Development Options

Clearly, opportunities for reusing buildings are likely to come in as many shapes and sizes as the buildings themselves. Sometimes an entire building will become available, sometimes just a part. In the case of prisons, usually spread out in campus arrangements, a variety of buildings may be available if an entire campus is closed, or, if the facility is only downsized, select buildings may be empty. The problem in almost every case will be to develop access to discreet functional areas (some with varying security requirements) that eliminates undesired conflicts. If there are shared central facilities such as a kitchen, for example, the challenge is providing access to all users. In some instances, if there are shared central facilities (a kitchen for example), the problem will be how to ensure access to shared services or functions by all users.

In the face of budget cuts and decreasing capacity needs, let’s assume that three housing units are emptied and that corrections officials make them available for alternate uses. In that case, the secure perimeter may be altered to permit unrestricted access by the new users, with these uses completely separated from ongoing corrections operations. Note that the campus reorganization permits the remainder of the campus to continue operations unimpeded.

It would be equally possible to convert that housing to non-secure residential units for other community services such as pre-release and transitional housing, special treatment (substance abuse, mental health), work release, and community-based programs such as homeless and emergency shelters. Potentially, the correctional food service component could provide meals for these other programs. If the opportunity presents itself, other campus amenities, for example, a gymnasium or fitness center could be made available for use by alternative programs.

If corrections officials decide to close down an entire institution and consolidate inmate populations at other locations, then entire campuses could be “repurposed,” with all buildings slated for new uses. It is easy to imagine a correctional campus being converted to a unified, single purpose facility — an industrial park, perhaps, or a community college, with a variety of training, shop and other instructional spaces. A more varied assembly of unrelated functions is equally likely — shops, offices, storage spaces, agencies, retail, even residential functions. In every case, it will be a matter of examining potential community needs and the opportunities presented by the existing corrections physical plant to determine what the possibilities may be.

Michael McMillen, AIA, is a design director for Justice Solutions Group. He has served as an instructor for the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). His monograph, “Construction, Operations and Staff Training for Juvenile Confinement Facilities,” prepared for the U.S. Office of Justice Programs, is widely distributed as a primer detailing best practices for juvenile facility development and operations.

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