Rattling the Bars: Repurposing prisons can revitalize rural America

The economic fortunes of rural communities across the United States are often deeply intertwined with the prison industrial complex. This poses a real challenge to the project of ending mass incarceration. How can organizers build political opposition to prisons in areas where prisons are the lifeblood of a community? And what should be done with former prisons once they are closed? The question of repurposing prisons in particular is too often neglected by state governments. A new report from the Sentencing Project finds that while 21 states have closed prisons since 2000, many of these sites have simply become other types of correctional facilities in the absence of clear transition plans. Nicole Porter from the Sentencing Project joins Rattling the Bars to discuss this new report.

Production / Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-host with Eddie Conway. To give you an update on Eddie Conway, Eddie Conway is doing good. He’s now living in Nevada and recuperating. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing him make a cameo here, there, or at some point in time.

When we think about the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, we often recognize the connection between the prison-industrial complex and rural America, how rural America has benefitted astronomically from the overpopulation of prisons in rural America. Here to talk to me, with us today, is Nicole Porter, who is a senior advocacy staff member at the Sentencing Project. She wrote a report entitled “Repurposing Correctional Facilities to Strengthen Communities”. Welcome, Nicole, to Rattling the Bars.

Nicole Porter:  Thank you for having me. Always a pleasure to join you.

Mansa Musa:  Now, in this report that you wrote – And before we go into details of it – You’re basically outlining the need to look at repurposing prisons that are being closed in different parts of the United States. Why did you choose to go in this direction and write this report in particular, before you go into detail of some of the findings that you came up with?

Nicole Porter:  Well, I wanted to document the fact that prison closures have happened and are happening. I thought it was important to provide an overall picture of that development. Many people don’t know. They don’t understand that states have been closing prisons for a range of reasons. So, I wanted to develop what is one of the major contributions in the report, which is a list of closed prisons around the country. In fact, we document that over 21 states have closed prisons since 2000, over 81,000 beds. So key finding, and I know we’ll get into more later.

Then also the report documents that when prisons close down, there should be a plan for their reuse. Otherwise, there’s a risk of the prisons being reopened for correctional purposes. That was the focus of the report, and to hopefully share with decarceration coalitions and decarceration advocates what affirmative strategies they can be organizing around and what the possibilities might be in those conversations around the country.

Mansa Musa:  Now, let’s unpack some of the report. All right. So the first thing I wanted to look at is, as you outlined, you said in the report that between 2000 and 2022, 21 states have closed or fully closed at least one prison, reducing the correction population in the United States by 81,444. Okay. That’s 21 prisons in the United States. Now, that’s not like a lot of prisons in the United States.

Nicole Porter:  Well, at least a prison in each state. Some states have closed more than one prison. New York, for example, has closed several prisons since its prison population declined over many years. Their prison closure period dates back to 2011, and they’ve closed a significant number of state prisons.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. We recognize that closing any prisons is a good thing, but in terms of the impact of repurposing prisons and prison closures, let’s look at the landscape in the United States of America when we’re talking about prisons. It’s a known fact that the majority of the prisons in the United States are in rural America. That’s a fact. It’s a fact that the majority of prisons that are in rural America are being used to create the infrastructure for people in rural America to be able to survive, i.e. that’s their livelihood.

I think in Attica, our documentary, they interviewed a woman in the Attica documentary, and the woman said Attica is the business. It is the number one business. Now, this being the number one business in rural America in your study – And I noticed that you’re saying that, no, the key to decarceration is repurposing prisons – But in your study, how do you get these communities where that prisons need to be closed, how do you get these communities to buy into the concept of repurposing? Mainly, Nicole, in the face of, I’ve got a recession-proof job. My job ain’t going nowhere as long as I have a body to count.

Nicole Porter:  Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, there are other recession-proof labor sectors, and in states like New York that are a little bit farther along in terms of closing prisons and then reusing them, the state has a role in supporting those conversations. So in New York in particular, out of the governor’s office, through the Empire State Development Fund, there is an economic transformation initiative that was launched that funded local redevelopment conversations and counties where prisons were closed. So that’s a best practice, a model that should continue to move forward in New York and should be considered in other states where prisons are closed. The state has a responsibility. The state, in many counties across the country during the ’80s and the ’90s and selling the business of prisons to local communities, rural communities, particularly during a period of agricultural loss and the shifting labor market, helped to underwrite a carceral Marshall plan and fund and support and incentivize new prison construction. So the state has a responsibility to repair the harms of mass incarceration and address the challenges of mass incarceration.

In states where there are active efforts to close prisons, California being a prime example, the governor has announced plans to close a prison. There is an active civic community conversation happening to support prison closures in that state. The Decarceration Coalition and the governor’s office and other stakeholders should work together to help transform the communities where prisons are located and where prison closures are planned.

I’ll say that the state doesn’t just have a responsibility to those local communities that currently house prison warehouses, and where millions of people are disappeared to. The state also has a responsibility to the folks exiting those prisons, to the folks who will be moved from those prisons into other correctional facilities, to support and increase the number of releases to help sustain decarceration strategies and reduce prison populations.

The problem in the United States is that we lock up too many people, far exceeding any other country in the world, and certainly any other Western democracy, and that we have overbuilt our correctional system. So the United States needs to fix that. In communities that would fight to sustain a prison or keep a prison open, the state has a responsibility to address their local economic concerns, but it also has a responsibility to address the issues that have led to the high rate of prison to begin with and to the likelihood of incarceration for too many people, particularly Black and Brown, from the over-policed neighborhoods that dominate this country.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. We look, you’re saying, and the state is responsible for educating the community or investing in the repurposing of institutions that are closed. You’re saying just as the state was responsible for the building of prisons, the state should now take the position to change. In your studies, or in your views, how do you get state legislators who are at this very time passing laws or ghost guns and passing laws to strengthen penalties and which ultimately are going to lead to more incarceration? Who’s responsible for getting the legislators that’s going to pass these bills or going to pass these laws to end the prison-industrial complex in their states? How do you get them involved?

Nicole Porter:  Well, I think it’s in partnership with decarceration coalitions that are anchoring efforts around reducing prison populations, or in their anchoring efforts to counter new laws that enhance and increase admissions to prison. This is not an easy conversation. This has been a conversation that’s dominated the United States over the last close to 50 years, given the era of mass incarceration, and even before that, a range of laws including Jim Crow segregation, and before that, Black codes that have focused the criminal justice system, the criminal legal system on socially controlling and policing the liberty of Black residents in particular. It’s a part of an ongoing effort to try to address that and redo, rethink the American social contract that drives arrest and drives incarceration. It’s not easy.

This is not easy work. But I think what is possible, given my new report, is that there are conversations where decarceration has happened. Some states have reduced their prison population substantially since they peaked in the late 2000s. States like California and New York, New Jersey, Oregon. These are states where the prison population has come down, and there are current efforts to close prisons or there have been efforts to close prisons in New York in particular.

I know states like Texas and Tennessee might dismiss outcomes in New York, but New York really does have many examples at this point around reusing closed prisons for non-correctional use and local communities have been supported in doing that with state funding to support community economic development conversations. So there are best practices to draw from.

There are states that are seriously looking at closing their prisons. So, the United States is often a country of contradictions, where conversations are moving at the same time. You have efforts to enhance criminal laws that might increase arrests, might increase admissions to prison, but at the same time you have efforts around speeding up releases, around reducing the number of people in prison because of the overcrowding situation that’s dominated many states over the years. While my report documents prison closures and prison reuse, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that there are states that have overcrowded systems and that are actually talking about building new prisons, so states like Alabama and Nebraska.

We have a large country with different governments, 50 states plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. So, the considerations are different depending on what locality you’re in. But even in the midst of the mass incarceration era, there are decarceration outcomes, and there are serious efforts around closing prisons, which my report documents, and then also reusing them. I wanted to focus on my report and put my report out there because as states seriously consider closing prisons down, they should plan for their reuse and repurposing outside of corrections. Because if that doesn’t happen, then there is a strong possibility that a closed prison would be reopened for additional correctional use, given the ongoing issues around mass incarceration in the United States.

Mansa Musa:  We recognize that this is not an easy task. We’re talking about the abolition of modern-day slavery in and of itself. But let’s look at some of the examples that you noted in your report. I know for a fact about Lorton prison. Lorton prison was a prison that housed DC prisoners, and it was closed as a result of a bill being passed in the United States Senate and United States Congress about the Revitalization Act, where the district government was basically going broke, so they chose to close that – And this is not a reflection on your report, this is why it was closed – But in terms of repurposing it…

Nicole Porter:  Yeah. [crosstalk]

Mansa Musa:  Let’s look at some of the examples. Huh?

Nicole Porter:  Yeah. Well, I’m just saying, because it’s come up for me with DC advocates who wanted to talk about the report, that two things can be true at the same time. The context for the closure, but then also once the prison is closed, the reuse. Because of the location of Lorton prison, and presumably the opportunities because of how close the closed prison was to other opportunities for economic development, there was interest in reusing it, and that happened.

I think what’s important about documenting Lorton in the report that I published and what it offers as a lesson to other closed prisons and other decarceration coalitions and other decarceration stakeholders is that once a prison is closed, there can be a future for that site outside of corrections. The federal government could have kept that prison open, could have sustained it as a prison facility and housed people sentenced to federal prison there. But it didn’t do that because of a range of different economic development interests. And now that closed prison is no longer a prison.

Now, that certainly has an impact. DC residents from DC who are sentenced to prison do not have a local prison to go to within the immediate vicinity of the District of Columbia. They are sent into the Federal Bureau of Prisons. There’s supposed to be a practice to keep them within 500 square miles of Washington, DC. But we know that there are district residents in BOP, in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, who are as far away as California and Texas. So, it is unfortunate that that’s a reality. That should continue to push towards decarceration for residents sentence to DC code violations who are in the Federal Bureau of Prisons because there isn’t a local prison, and should shift conversations around what is the purpose of prison, should shift the presumption of imprisonment away from someone’s contact with the criminal legal system and sentencing to community-based alternatives for incarceration.

The United States overbuilt its prison system, so in order to address that, there has to be intentional efforts towards decarceration and towards reducing the prison footprint outright. So looking at any prison closure as an opportunity to permanently scale back the number of prison beds in this country and really narrow and reduce the likelihood that people will go to prison. Because it’s that current likelihood that continues to sustain the United States as the country with the world’s highest prison population.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah. But when I opened a conversation about Lorton, I wasn’t trying to get into the conversation about them having a prison, not having it. I was looking at it from the perspective of how this particular prison has been repurposed and who benefits from it being repurposed as an example of how this would have the same impact in rural America. It’s like the Black community, Lorton was in rural Virginia, so the people that benefited from it were people in that part of the country, which opens the conversation of how do you get people in rural America to buy into the concept of repurposing? Mainly, when, as I go back again – And this is you going to be confronted with this, all of us, the abolition movement, everybody going to be confronted with this – That that’s their livelihood. How can this alternative that I’m presenting meet that obligation of providing meals, security, et cetera?

Nicole Porter:  Well, the government has a responsibility in helping to plan for new jobs, initiatives, and economic transformation conversations. There are examples for that. I mentioned New York earlier. Out of the governor’s office in New York, an initiative to grant counties that experienced prison closures intentional funding to plan for the future economic transformation following a prison’s closure. It is something that local leaders and state leaders need to intentionally come together around to address the incentives that rural counties have in wanting prisons to begin with.

Now that we’re in a period of closure, or that a state may be in a period of closure, what should come next for that county? I don’t think that the conversation should stop there. If a state is reducing its prison population, and that increases the number of people who are released from prison, who are on probation or parole, then resources need to also be invested in services that can help meet the needs of justice-involved residents so that their likelihood of returning to prison is eliminated, if not outright reduced.

So, the state has a responsibility all around. New York has a responsibility to many of its constituencies, not just people in prison towns where correctional facilities close, but also in the sending communities where many of the people in New York’s state prison system are disappeared from. That’s going to be true in California, which is going through a prison closure conversation. That’s going to be true in Texas, in North Carolina, in Illinois, in any state that’s having a serious prison closure conversation. I hope, soon, Maryland will be on the list, given the high rate of Black men who are incarcerated in Maryland state prisons. The fact that Maryland likes to hold itself up as a state that enacts progressive policy changes, but it’s not reflected in its criminal legal practices. So there’s a lot of reform that the state needs to go through. I hope soon that will lead to a significant reduction in the number of people incarcerated, and can lead soon to serious conversations around prison closures.

Mansa Musa:  I’m in the District of Columbia, and I served time in the Maryland prison system, and when you get to Western Maryland, they can put a sign that says “Prison Town, USA”, because the entire Western Maryland and the Southern Maryland, that’s the industry. Where at one time fishing was an industry in Southern Maryland, now prison is the industry in Southern Maryland, and in Western Maryland, has always been there.

But let’s look, let’s dial down on… I agree. The state has an obligation. The state is responsible. I agree. The citizens and the community have to have the responsibility to force the state to enact laws and enact economic policies that help to elevate the citizens. But let’s look at another reality that exists when it comes to this.

In California alone, California’s prison guard union, it rivaled AFL-CIO in terms of membership because of the prison-industrial complex. How do you see the impact of, they’re going to advocate, and they’re going to advocate hard, and they put a lot of money into getting a lot of the laws that we see now passed. They put a lot of money into ensuring that their recession-proof jobs remain recession-proof. How do we look at the impact, the opposition they’re going to have in terms of changing the narrative? Because as I said before, Nicole, and you recognize this yourself, that there’s a hysteria going on in this country about crime. There’s a hysteria going on, and it’s distorted, as it might be, but it was the same distortion that led to the crime bill.

Nicole Porter:  Absolutely. Well, the decision to close prisons should not be up to the unions. Disappearing people to prison, taking people’s liberty away from them, subjecting them to violence and poor health outcomes because we don’t adequately fund state prison systems with the services necessary to keep people whole and keep people well. People who economically benefit from someone’s imprisonment and loss of liberty should not be the deciding factor, the deciding voice on whether or not to keep prisons open, even powerful unions out in California. That’s why it’s wonderful that the governor is driving this conversation, who’s elected by the people and who has the moral responsibility to anchor conversation around decarceration and improving the community for everybody, including folks most at risk of coming in contact with the police and ending up in prison.

I’ll also say that the United States was not the only country that had a rise in crime in the ’60s and ’70s, but the United States, when it did respond to its rise in crime, it responded with an expansion of its prison system, first by driving punitive sentences that increased arrests and prison admissions, and then by expanding prison capacity through a carceral Marshall plan, by helping to fund new prison beds across this country and overbuilding a prison system in the ’80s and the ’90s. Expanding a social safety net, but expanding it through incarceration and imprisonment is outrageous and unacceptable social policy that is rooted in a racist response to social problems that’s been driven by political elites in this country since the beginning of its founding, starting with previous areas of social control that predated the current one that we’re in this era of mass incarceration.

Other countries did not respond with an expansion of their prison population in the context of increasing crime. They did respond with expanding social services, like expanding access to early childhood education, because they were focused on supporting their people, keeping their people out of prison or reducing contact, putting social interventions into place that reduced contact with law enforcement in the first place. The United States, because of the political elites that dominate policy and have historically dominated policy in this country, had a distance between who they were imagining was going into prison, and that impacted the punitiveness that drove an increase in prison beds.

Outrageous response to crime at the time, outrageous continuation of the policies today, and the United States must do better and must do right by all of its people, including those who are most at risk of going into the system. So this report is a part of an effort to address that. It’s a part of a conversation to push the United States in the direction it should have been pushed in close to 50 years ago, and it’s where this country needs to go. This is the work that I’m going to be doing to support that.

Mansa Musa:  Right. It’s well overdue. You coined the term the “community reinvestment approach”. In terms of [crosstalk]

Nicole Porter:  I didn’t coin that. Other colleagues…

Mansa Musa:  Okay. Well –

Nicole Porter:  [crosstalk]

Mansa Musa:  …The term is out there, the community reinvestment approach. And what is that? I know you outlined some of it. So that would be [crosstalk]

Nicole Porter:  Well, that’s a part of that strategy that other countries employed that addressed public safety and addressed increases in crime, but did not rely on long prison terms or prison admissions as a way to get there. Community reinvestment, including job guarantee programs, services for people reentering into the community from prison, for employment training, housing assistance, other wraparound social services, therapeutic interventions through a public health intervention model, particularly for youth and their families most at risk of contact with the youth justice system. There are a range of solutions that need to be fully invested in to keep people out of prison and reduce their contact with law enforcement. So those are the community reinvestment solutions that the report suggests need to be invested in and should have been invested in close to 50 years ago instead of increasing the number of people in prison.

Mansa Musa:  What do you say to people – Because you just made mention of it – What do you say to people that have this mile-big view about public safety, that this repurposing prison, closing them, and doing something else with them, would in fact would create a public safety problem?

Nicole Porter:  I think that their response is a status quo response that’s not rooted in fact or evidence. There are other evidence-based interventions that reduce crime. If people are truly concerned with reducing crime as opposed to disappearing residents to prison that they view as a problem or that they don’t want to deal with, then there’s something to deal with on that. But that’s not about reducing crime. If we want to reduce crime, we have to fully fund social interventions that reduce contact with the criminal legal system in the first place. There’s a pathway towards that for stakeholders, politicians who are truly and meaningfully interested in reducing crime and the harms of crime.

Mansa Musa:  There you have it. The real news about “Repurposing Correction Facilities to Strengthen Community”, a report written by Nicole Porter and her colleague that highlights the necessity to rethink mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. And more importantly, to have the conversation about how the abolition of these institutions can be done, and can be done in such a manner where everybody benefits, the communities that’s been benefiting from slave labor can benefit from the closures, as Nicole outlined in the report, and the communities of people that’s being incarcerated can benefit from the repurposing of these prison.

Thanks, Nicole. Thanks very much for your insightful report and coming and sharing it with us. What else do you have to say on this matter?

Nicole Porter:  Well, thank you for having me, number one, and just that this is a part of an emerging conversation. There’s going to be an ongoing development of best practices as this goes forward. But I think what’s important is that any time a prison closes, that’s a step in the right direction, and that as prisons close, there should be a plan for its reuse outside of incarceration. And this report is one document that can help shape that conversation and contribute to it. I hope to work with people and participate in future conversations around it as well.

Mansa Musa:  Thank you. Thank you for joining us here on Rattling the Bars. For our viewers and listeners, continue to support Rattling the Bars at The Real News. You can go to our website and learn how to continue to support us. We have Eddie Conway; I’m Mansa Musa. Keep rattling the bars.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.