“Redesigning a Prison Town”: Next City

“Redesigning a Prison Town”: Next City September 7, 2015


…Ionia is a prison town. That is its primary industry. That’s why there’s a shiver that runs through town when word spreads about the possible closure of one of those facilities. Most of the thousands of inmates incarcerated in them come from 130-some miles away in southeast Michigan, where Detroit is the hub. The distance makes for a severe reduction in family visits and programming, which ultimately increases recidivism — that is, it increases crime. But building prisons here is what puts food on the table for local families, where the median income is $36,315. (Compare that to the state median, $48,273.) And Ionia is not unusual. In the 1990s, with mass incarceration accelerating, a new prison was built in rural America nearly every 15 days. Between 1980 and 2002, the majority of prisons were built in small towns; about 350 new prisons were put in rural counties. Before 1980, only 36 percent of prisons were in rural America.

But that was then. Today, in an era of increased scrutiny on mass incarceration and strained state budgets, prisoners are paroled more frequently and receive shorter sentences. Between 2011 and 2014, at least 89 correctional facilities in 25 states were shut down. Even communities that have long been home to a prison are pushing back, including northeast Philadelphia, where the House of Correction has stood for 140 years. Officials want to build a new prison to replace it, but the impassioned skepticism of local residents is postponing plans.

All this raises a pressing question: How do you detach a community from its dependency on the prison economy, without doing undue harm to local citizens? Is it even possible to wholly extract these forbidding fortresses from their intended purpose? After all, they were designed to be a place that nobody wants to be in. Puzzling out a way to find a new use, especially in rural areas and small towns, is a critical challenge for 21st-century planners.

more–lots of fascinating stuff here, a lot to chew on

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!