States shutter prisons as inmate numbers fall

States shutter prisons as inmate numbers fall

For more than a century, a maximum-security prison with a capacity to hold 584 inmates loomed in the hills of eastern Tennessee.

When Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary reopens in a few years, it will house a new moonshine distillery and a restaurant. The barbed wire will be gone, replaced by horse trails and campgrounds.

Brushy Mountain is one of nearly 100 prisons states have closed in recent years, as criminal justice reforms across the nation have led to a precipitous drop in inmate populations — and big savings for state budgets already stretched thin.

States held just more than 1.5 million prisoners at the end of 2014, down about 1 percent from the year before. Meanwhile, 39 states have seen declines in the number of prisoners they hold from recent peaks. Four states — New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and California — have seen prison populations decline by more than 20 percent, according to a new report from the Sentencing Project.

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The number of young offenders sent to prison for their crimes has seen an especially steep drop in recent years. Juveniles in state correctional facilities have declined by more than half, from a peak of 77,000 in 1999 to just over 35,000 in 2013, according to the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The declines in prison populations come as states revisit the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s that sent inmate numbers skyrocketing, and as crime rates fall nationally.

States such as California have revised three-strikes laws that lock up repeat offenders for life; Texas passed a sweeping overhaul of its own criminal justice system, prioritizing mental health treatment and rehabilitation rather than tough sentences. Many states have eliminated prison sentences for low-level or non-violent offenders.

“You have a number of states that have taken data-driven approaches to try to see if reductions in crime can be translated into reductions in prison populations,” said Marshall Clement, director of state initiatives at the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The new thinking is bipartisan. The Republican-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has partnered with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators to push new reforms. The billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch partnered with Democratic billionaire George Soros to fund a new ACLU initiative on reducing prison populations.

To liberals, focusing on rehabilitation and reducing sentences for some drug-related crimes is a social good. To conservatives, cutting prison populations can free up state resources that would otherwise go toward expensive corrections costs.

Since 2011, states have closed or announced plans to close 92 prisons, the Sentencing Project report found. Those closures will save states a third of a billion dollars annually.

But corrections costs continue rising, even in states where prison populations are stable, given mandatory expenditures for things like pensions and rising labor costs or medical care for inmates.

“Even in states where prison populations aren’t changing, you’re seeing significant increases in those budgets,” Clement said. “To really be able to hold corrections costs stable relative to other budget items, states really have to find ways to either get control of those cost drivers or reduce population.”

While closing prisons can be good for state budgets overall, they also represent the loss of major employers in the mostly rural communities that rely on prisons for good jobs.

“Any time there’s serious discussion about closures, there’s oftentimes resistance from the surrounding communities,” said Nicole Porter, who authored the Sentencing Project study. Porter said she hoped the report would give communities new ideas for ways to use shuttered prisons.

States have increasingly turned to alternative uses for closed prisons, like the distillery at Brushy Mountain in Tennessee.

One New York prison on Staten Island, which closed in 2011, will reopen as a movie studio that is expected to generate 800 new jobs in its first two years. Corrections centers in Gainesville, Fla., and Haywood, N.C., are being used to house homeless people. And a minimum-security prison in Peoria, Ill., is now being used as an incubator for small farms.

Other states are using lower prison populations to decrease or end their reliance on private prison operators. The federal Department of Justice said this year it would phase out its use of for-profit prison companies, citing the reduced number of federal inmates, while Colorado, Mississippi, Kentucky and Texas have closed privately run prisons in recent years.

Not every state is seeing a downward trend in prison populations. Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia have all begun to add new capacity or discussed plans to increase the number of beds for prisoners.

Nationally, about 471 people per 100,000 are incarcerated in state prisons and jails, according to data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi have the highest ratios of jailed inmates, while Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Dakota have the lowest.