As the U.S. economy tilted away from manufacturing in the last quarter century, it didn’t take long for architects and developers to convert factory floors to loft apartments. Another building type which is just as ubiquitous has proven more difficult to reimagine, however. Prisons—both urban and rural—carry a much stronger moral charge than factories in terms of what they represent and their function in society. Prison-reform politics aside, states increasingly face oversized prison systems. “New York just closed seven; Colorado’s closing two; Michigan in the last decade has closed 22,” says Tracy Huling, a Soros Justice Fellow who helps governments, justice advocates, and rural community leaders identify and spread best practices in closing and repurposing prisons. “Stricter sentencing and other policies made us too quick to lock people up,” says Liz Minnis, AIA, a Massachusetts deputy commissioner for planning and design, and chair of the AIA’s Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ).

Despite the closings, there are currently more than 2 million Americans behind bars, on parole, or on probation. As prison populations grew in the last decade (Bureau of Justice Statistics notes an average annual increase of the federal prison population of 1.6 percent), larger prisons came along.

“So now,” says Minnis, “as the rate of incarceration is decreasing in many states and the federal government, we have these sites that are hard to redevelop.”

“For the first time in 40 years, the population in prisons has leveled off,” says Stephen Carter, a city planner and president of the CGL Companies Development Services Division, a justice facilities consultancy. Carter, who writes a column for Correctional News, says these massive facilities may stay “less crowded” as economic straits and smaller police forces mean fewer arrests. He also points out that the notion that prison is an effective deterrent for crime has slowly shifted. “There has been a gradual adjustment in the attitude of Americans to conclude that incarceration alone has not worked.”

The sites of old prisons are unforgiving. “Supermax prisons,” so-called for their high level of security and 5,000 or more beds, have lost traction in state budgeting over the past few years as governors reassess their costs and scholars reappraise their effects. The culture of crime and punishment now in the U.S. is about re-evaluating the idea of locking up convicts for life in huge rural prisons.

It’s a set of social questions as well as architectural ones. How do new models of prisoner rehabilitation inform the physical form of correctional facilities and their landscapes? If states mothball some of their prisons, can those vast, fortress-like facilities have a new life?

Good Bones

Incarceration is not a new idea. But the architectural forms it has taken have shifted in the last 200 years. Facilities such as Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (based on Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon”), Sing Sing in Ossining, N.Y. (based on the Auburn system, which favored prisoner isolation), and through the efforts of social reformers like Alexander Paterson (who favored open, community-based arrangements), the dual concepts of punishment and rehabilitation became inextricably linked.

Across the board, architects have strong feelings about the ethics of incarceration, and a majority opposes involving their profession in the design of prisons. But what about the design of prisons for new uses?

Older urban lockups have retained enough of their grandeur to be adapted for today’s downtowns. The handsome granite walls of Boston’s Charles Street Jail, designed by Gridley J.F. Bryant and completed in 1851, now contain the luxe Liberty Hotel (ironically named) with—among other amenities—a bar called Clink. But most of today’s budget-minded prisons—urban or otherwise, built over the last 25 years—are designed with less nobility, Spartan finishes, and humble (if expensive) materials. Carter notes that the biggest conundrum is the often steel-reinforced concrete wall systems, which are not really designed for anything beyond containing bodies securely. Of course, Gridley Bryant might not have envisioned a future hotel space when he designed the Charles Street Jail, but if you start with good bones you have a better chance of adapting them.

If newer supermax prisons go the way of the Liberty Hotel, however, their reuse is more fraught than it might be for historic structures such as San Francisco’s Alcatraz and Philadelphia’s Eastern Penitentiary. Carter suggests their most obvious adaptation is as a storage facility—as U-Haul and other companies have done with industrial buildings across the country. Another possibility is data-storage or data-processing centers, given the high degree of environmental control that prisons offer. Other options include community colleges (once cells are removed) and artist studios (in which individual cells may be an asset).

Process-Oriented

Before a programmatic reorientation, though, prisons are subject to economic and social reorientation. Identifying the best possible use of a former prison (in terms of everything from job creation to environmental impact) is a multiyear process that centers on larger questions about private enterprise and the public good.

Tracy Huling speaks admiringly of the mayor of Warwick, N.Y., for creating a citizens’ advisory panel that interviewed everybody from local merchants to police to find a path forward for the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, which closed in 2011. The closure was part of the state’s $50 million reinvestment initiative to stoke development around obsolete prison sites. “It’s important to demonstrate that prisons can be closed without destroying communities,” says Huling, noting research showing that—while the presence of prisons does long-term harm—in the short-term, communities are concerned about the loss of jobs and benefits. “In some states, that concern has led to bringing public prisons back on line or selling closed public facilities to for-profit prison corporations, instead of carefully considering non-prison options.”

To date, private prison companies, including Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group, operate upwards of 250 facilities across the United States, including existing structures and new buildings. While these for-profit companies can be cheaper alter­natives for cash-strapped states, Huling notes that they complicate the question of long-term good for communities. Through her Soros Fellowship, Huling has begun championing a deliberative process for deciding what to do with decommissioned prison property in terms of producing the best possible outcomes for communities economically, socially, physically, and spiritually. She points to the redevelopment of former military bases, and to the work of architects like Raphael Sperry, AIA, another new Soros fellow and principal at San Francisco–based Simon and Associates, as well as of the New Orleans–based planning and design firm Concordia.

Still, there seems to be a new opportunity somewhere between privatizing a prison (and conjuring a more robust model of incarceration that centers on rehabilitation) and redeveloping a prison site for other uses. “There are benefits to prerelease counseling and re-entry training,” says Minnis. “And when this is the focus, you want to build more-normative environments, such as storefronts and halfway houses, which is very different from most of what was built in the expansion.” Minnis and her colleagues in the AAJ will take up this theme in next month’s “Community Dialogue,” a conference to be held in Toronto that will focus on how justice facilities hold up a mirror to the societies that build them.

But in the long view for prisons, adaptive reuse is going to be about social reform as much as it will be about planning reform. Just as most people have the capacity to shift gears, most building types—including prisons—have the potential for reinvention. -Alec Appelbaum

To learn more about AAJ’s fall conference, visit aia.org/aaj.