Rethinking prison buildings

No matter what your opinion is on the criminal justice system in the country in which you live I think we can all agree that prisons are pretty bleak places. Whether they are inhabited or not, they often fall into disrepair and if you believe in the supernatural they can reportedly be extremely haunted places too.

That’s why this week I wanted to focus on rethinking and repurposing prison buildings.

My inspiration for this topic came from learning about an organisation in the u.s. called Growing Change.
This is a group inspired by the belief that the criminal justice system in the US is not doing all it can to prevent young men entering a life of crime, started out as more of a support group for young men on juvenile probation. Then in 2011 Norman Sanford of Growing Change, who had grown up in the area near the abandoned Scotland correctional centre in Wigram  organised to rent the prison for free from the state, and asked his mentee group what they thought they should do with this abandoned prison. Many of this group of 12 guys thought he had gone slightly mad, but after adjusting to the question of what to do with the prison, and brainstorming ideas, they started getting excited and realising the potential they had for this space.
They decided, they would create a farm.

In their overall plan includes beekeeping, wool production, free range eggs, fruit and vegetable growth using compost and food waste, aquaponics, a prison History Museumm a certified Community Kitchen, and even a rock climbing wall and recording studio!

The mission behind these ideas is giving back to the community while empowering young men to avoid futures filled with crime and incarceration, and while originally this group was open only to people already involved with the criminal justice system, they are now also open to young men facing challenging times at home, struggling with school, having trouble with substance abuse or mental health issues, or those part of minority groups. 

I think the most heartwarming thing that I read is that they are now engaging returned veterans who have struggled to find employment to assist with this project as well, which not only engages them in this amazing community initiatives and allows them to work towards degrees within the agriculture industry, but also provides I kind of mentorship for the at-risk youth involved. 

Earlier in the year when the pandemic first hit, these youth reached out to many charity organisations to distribute boxes of the food that they had grown to people in need, and they have recently planted a whole new garden with the intention of donating this as well after harvesting.

Once a young man in this area is involved in any way in the criminal justice system, it is reported that their rate of re-offence and incarceration at an adult level is around 43%, however within this program they have seen a 92% reduction of this recidivism, which is absolutely amazing.
As well as being a great example of the prevention model within the criminal justice system, this project has a strong focus in sustainability. The University of North Carolina at Pembroke donates around 280 kilograms of food waste each week. The youth and veterans sort through this, donating any edible portions to local food banks, and using the other food scraps to feed the chickens, to compost for the vegetable gardens, and aim to use every bit of waste they can. 

In creating this program they have also created a model which is easy to replicate for people looking to do similar things in other areas. There are many abandoned prisons in the US due to falling incarceration rates as well as many cases of combining two separate prisons into one in an effort to save money, so there is a great potential for this project to be replicated on a large scale.

In Gainesville Florida in 2014 Grace was opened. Grace is an old abandoned prison which was revamped and turned into a homeless shelter. For the people who reside at Grace, they have access to mental health care, general medical care, training programs in culinary skills, donated clothing, a cafe which serves food which has been grown on site, and a computer lab. Between 2014 and 2019 the rate of people living on the streets in the area dropped by almost 40% and within this time over 700 people have been able to secure long term, independent housing thanks to this amazing program.

In Perth, Australia you’ll find Wooroloo Prison Farm which is an operational male prison. Here,  any prisoners who have been approved are able to engage in the community in reforestation and environmental projects, which can enrich and empower them, building skills for the time at which they are no longer in prison. For those within the prison day-to-day, inmates are taught skills in the workshop, have access to traineeships, and can take part in producing food and goods for use within the prison system. This not only educates them in these processes, but also reducing costs for prisoner management.

In Maastricht mahstrihit in the Netherlands, when the pandemic hit many of their local shelters for homeless people were shutdown, as it was ruled they couldn’t safely accommodate the number of homeless people during this time. The Salvation Army sprung into action and acquired use of an abandoned prison in the area using the rooms to provide for those affected. Since there is more privacy, it means there is more safety from the spread of the virus. The use of this prison has been agreed to by the government for as long as Corona covid-19 restrictions are in place, providing stability to these vulnerable people in such a terrible time.

In Western Australia you will find Karnet Prison Farm, which is a Minimum Security facility for male prisoners. While incarcerated at Karnet, there are job skills and education available to inmates to be able to produce fruit and vegetables, as well as meat, dairy, and egg products. Opportunities such as this especially for those with shorter prison stays mean that when inmates are re-introduced to the community, they will be empowered to gain employment in this industry, or others, and research shows these types of programs make reintegration much smoother.

While these stories so far have mostly been about highly vulnerable and at-risk people there is also a much more bougeoir prison recycling trend as well. All over the world there is no limits of being able to find old prisons that have been turned into office spaces, entertainment centres, hotels, and hostels that you can stay in, from Budget Stays, to lush, luxury style accommodation…  you can find pretty much anything! 

Converted prisons that boast ghosts and hauntings is definitely on my bucket list once things open up after the pandemic! 

The Netherlands Boschpoort prison has an amazing giant Dome, and it’s reimagining is stunning. It’s now an office building and Entertainment Complex, with 90 different businesses being housed in this huge prison.

In Bendigo Australia you can find Ulambarra Theatre. The building used to house the Sandhurst jail, which has now been converted into a thousand seat Theatre. This is another stunning reimagining of an old gold-rush era building which will also house 9 Floors of hotel rooms, 6 levels of residential apartments, a gym, a day spa, conference facilities, a restaurant, parking, and an indoor pool.

Then there is the stunning Liberty Hotel in Boston, US. The irony of the name isn’t lost on me, and while the original prison opened in 1851 and famously had political activist Malcolm X serve time there, it was closed in 1990 and today houses just under 300 luxury hotel rooms and 5 restaurants and bars within the building.

If you were to stay at the Four Seasons sultaanaHammett in Istanbul Turkey you probably wouldn’t even know that it used to be a prison! This is a 5-star hotel that even hosts weddings now, and the old  exercise yard has been converted into a formal dining courtyard.

Perhaps a prison being turned into a hotel is not quite as inspiring as being turned into a farm managed by at risk youth and returned veterans, however I think the message I received from this topic is one of tangible hope. Prisons are fairly visually identifiable and symbolic, and I think seeing these projects happening shows us our changing attitudes toward crime, punishment, and rehabilitation, as well as what humans are capable of when we think outside the box.  

If today’s episode has inspired you at all there are countless community organisations providing support to at-risk youth menurut egroups veterans and homeless people all over the world so perhaps a quick Google search can help you get involved.  I know I’m pretty inspired by these stories of hope. 

Thanks so much for being here with me for this episode of good news, good night.   

Sleep well.

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