Two years ago, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics announced a small data point marking an inglorious milestone: In 2009, America’s prison population declined, and for the first time in decades. This meant, to frame the news another way, that until that year, dating all the way back to 1972, America had been in the business of constantly imprisoning more and more people. During that time, incarceration – and constructing sprawling complexes and boxy cellblocks to accommodate it – had become something of a great American growth industry.
Since then, the trend appears to be holding. In 2011, 13 states were closing prisons or in the process of it. Michigan has now closed 22 facilities since 2002. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans last year to close seven. And legislators in Texas – a state that had tripled its prison capacity since the late '80s – recently opted to close the 102-year-old Sugar Land prison. Last week, the BJS confirmed that prison populations are on the decline for the third year in a row, and an arc is beginning to take shape.
Prisons will be particularly difficult to re-purpose.