What’s a Shuttered Youth Prison Good For?

Hundreds of them are now vacant, and they hold untapped value for meeting communities' needs.
June 28, 2018
Phones in a prison.
(MCT/Los Angeles Times/Al Seib)
By Samantha Harvell  |  Contributor
A senior research associate for the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center

The number of youth incarcerated in the United States has been cut in half over the past two decades. The reasons for this are mixed and include a decline in youth committing crimes in the first place. But this reduction also reflects a fundamental shift in the way that juvenile justice systems manage youth who break the law. Bolstered by both research and public support, states and localities are embracing community-based alternatives that are often more effective and cost-efficient than incarceration.

One byproduct of this shift is the emptying of youth correctional facilities across the country. Recent data suggest that there were nearly 1,300 fewer facilities operating in 2016 than in 2000. This raises a question: What is happening to these places? And, more importantly, what potential do they hold?

In some cases, the answer is that nothing is happening. Many facilities sit empty, costing taxpayers millions of dollars to maintain. The state of California, for instance, spent an estimated $5.6 million to maintain just one empty juvenile correctional facility over eight years. Further, empty facilities have been linked to increasing crime rates and declining property values.

Recognizing the cost of inaction, a number of states and localities are taking steps to repurpose former youth prisons. Our new report highlights six facilities that are being transformed to meet local community needs. The approaches vary widely, and the report makes it clear that repurposing is not without its own challenges. But each effort demonstrates the potential these facilities hold to add value to their communities.

For example, the former Apache County, Ariz., Juvenile Detention Center has been converted into a community center for teenagers. Prior to its closure in 2015, the detention center cost $1.2 million a year to operate and held only one or two youths on an average night. The center now provides local high-schoolers with communal space, free internet and other entertainment. Teens from a nearby school provided input on the design, and much of the renovation work was completed by youth probation staff, which kept costs low. Apache County's approach is a great model for the state of Arizona, which is exploring options for repurposing a number of unused detention facilities.

Washtenaw County, Mich., is repurposing the site of its youth detention center into a sustainable-living community. In response to a dire need for affordable housing in high-cost Ann Arbor and following extensive community engagement efforts, the county board of commissioners awarded the project to THRIVE Collaborative, a local development firm. In partnership with local home builders and other organizations, the collaborative plans to repurpose the land into a community called Veridian @ County Farm. The mixed-income development will include at least 50 affordable housing units, dedicate a significant portion of its landscape to food production, and house a multifunctional community center open to the entire Washtenaw community.

Stakeholders in Fulton County, N.Y., took a similarly expansive approach, redeveloping the former Tryon Juvenile Detention Facility into a high-tech business park in 2015. Following the facility's closure, the state transferred it to the county at no cost. The county then leveraged federal, state and local grant funds to renovate the facility, construct a new highway into the site and reconfigure water and sewer infrastructure. The Tryon Technology Park is currently home to a company that manufactures and sells medicines derived from medical cannabis.

As with Apache County in Arizona and Washtenaw County in Michigan, Fulton County's effort can serve as a model for New York state, which has closed a number of its own youth facilities over the past 10 years. No one benefits from vacant prisons. Every one that sits empty is a missed opportunity to invest in its community's future.