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New study reveals a quiet revolution of repurposed prisons

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Defund the police - that phrase has become a rallying cry for some and a political hammer to swing at opponents for others, depending, of course, on your view of the movement to move resources away from traditional law enforcement into other strategies to improve community safety. But while activists and their antagonists have been fighting over this, there's been a quiet revolution in the way many states and cities are using their prisons and jails. Since 2000, some 21 states have partially or fully closed at least one correctional facility, and they're using them for everything from film studios to housing, even a whiskey distillery. That's according to a new report from the Sentencing Project. But the study also asks if this trend will continue as episodes of violent crime spike across the country.

We called Nicole Porter to hear more. She is the senior director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, and she is with us now. Nicole Porter, thanks so much for joining us.

NICOLE PORTER: Thanks so much for having me and for engaging with the report. I appreciate that.

MARTIN: You know, the report is really fascinating, Nicole, because you write that this trend started long before this movement that I just, you know, mentioned, the defund the police movement. I mean, there's always been a decarceration movement in the United States. But it wasn't a household phrase. I mean, it wasn't something that, like, most people would kind of instantly know about until relatively recently. And you write that this report to close or repurpose correctional facilities started in 2000. And as we just said, 21 states have partially or fully closed at least one. How did this start? Like, why did this start?

PORTER: Well, it's a mix of reasons. There has been decarceration that supported prison closures and repurposing in states like New York, which is really ahead of the curve among many states who are closing prisons. But prisons have also closed because of the age of their facilities. Prisons have also closed in states like Illinois, even when there's an overcrowding situation, because of the chronic harms in the prisons. So, for example, in Illinois, a maximum-security prison where solitary was the main point of incarceration for the people housed there was closed even in the midst of an overcrowding situation. But lawmakers closed that facility because it was the right thing to do.

MARTIN: Is there any sort of a throughline to the places that decided to close these facilities? As you said, it's 21 states. And you say that's - it's still a minority of these facilities, right? But is there a throughline to the places where the officials decided to close these facilities? Is there some overall trend you could point to?

PORTER: I think a throughline has been as states have been confronted with downsizing their prison capacity because of budget concerns or because the current capacity they have is excessive compared to the number of people that they continue to imprison - this is in states like New York specifically - that there's been tough choices around which prisons have been selected for closure. Some of - many of these prisons are in rural areas, far from cities, but there are some that are close to cities that have been selected because of the economic development potential for them.

For example, Lorton Prison in D.C. was closed in the early 2000s as part of a shift in policy. And it's in, you know, in a high-potential area. And its repurposing came about because of mixed-use real estate development, so there are economic interests for that closure. Other prisons, not so much. They're in local communities far from major cities, and finding a use for them after their closure has been a struggle. But there is leadership that can surface as a result of that to hopefully permanently repurpose those prisons outside of correctional use.

MARTIN: You mentioned the Lorton - former Lorton Reformatory. It was actually in Virginia, although it was the...

PORTER: Yes. I'm sorry. I'm mistaken...

MARTIN: No, no, no. Let's talk about it. I mean, Lorton Reformatory was the prison for the District of Columbia, but it was in Virginia. It's now turned into a housing development. Do people have feelings about that? I mean, I - just curious of like - I'm just wondering, like, how do people respond to that?

PORTER: The current reaction to this report and to the overall issue of Lorton no longer being - or there is no longer being a local prison in D.C. is a complicated one. We note there is a natural constituency, including directly impacted constituency of Black and brown residents, who want a local prison in D.C. because of their loved ones, because people are sent now far away to California and Texas, like I mentioned. And it's too far to visit for many people - very expensive to visit. So it's a huge challenge. But I think the reality of closures is not mutually exclusive to where - for people who are currently in prison, where they're sentenced to and the context around local prison so that families and communities can maintain ties to incarcerated people.

MARTIN: Well, as I think people will have ascertained by now, you are an advocate with a specific point of view around what role incarceration and other punitive measures should play in community safety. OK. So you're very clear about that. So the elephant in the room right now - in fact, well, you talk about this in the report - is the current rise in violent crime. You wrote, at the time of this writing, a recent uptick in serious and violent crime could lead many public officials to return to the overly punitive practices that led to the construction of so many prisons and jails. You say this would be a grave mistake, and it would sacrifice a valuable opportunity to put land and facilities to better use for the public good. Obviously, that's a - this is a point of view with a very deep stem. It is a point of view that many people around the world have about incarceration. But it's obviously a point of view that many people do not share. So as briefly as you can, recognizing that this is a complicated issue, what's your best argument for why people should listen to you about this?

PORTER: Well, it's a point of view backed up by evidence and data. The United States increased its prison footprint as a response to crime 50 years ago, almost 50 years ago. Other countries like Germany and Sweden also had an increase in violent crime, but they viewed the people most at risk of crime breaking as their people. And so they invested in solutions and interventions that reduced contact with law enforcement and reduced the possibility of their imprisonment. The United States did not because we have a racial caste system in this country, and the imagination of who broke laws meant, for the people driving punitive policy, that those people no longer had a future or shouldn't be worthy of one.

So now, in 2022, continuing mass incarceration policies is a choice. People have been offering other solutions, including looking at countries who have experienced similar increases in crime and made different choices like interventions and education and guaranteed job programs. And the United States could do that now. I know the recent policies adopted by the Biden administration can support infrastructure support and other solutions. And those solutions should be looked at in the context of public safety and making different choices around incarceration, even in the context of increased crime and concerns of crime.

MARTIN: Do you sense a political appetite for this, even amidst this current increase in violent crime? I mean, in 2020, homicides rose nearly 30%. Do you sense a political appetite to listen to the point of view of you and other advocates in your space?

PORTER: This report and the solutions offered within it are one pathway that I hope lawmakers and other stakeholders seriously engage with in terms of imagining a better country and a country that's safe for everyone, including those who have experienced violence, even in the midst of violent - in decreases in violence since the early '90s, even though now there's an uptick in it. So this report offers a window into what solutions are, particularly if American policymakers are thinking about everyone's future - not just the future for some, but everyone in this country deserves a future, including those who are most at risk of going to prison.

MARTIN: That was Nicole Porter. She's the senior director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, and she just wrote a report about the number of states and cities that are repurposing closed formerly correctional facilities. Nicole Porter, thanks so much for talking with us.

PORTER: Thank you for having me. I appreciate you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.