At the end of its years of operation in 2015, the Apache County Juvenile Detention Center in Arizona held an average of just one to two youths per day, though it was built to hold as many as 12. Rates of juvenile incarceration in Apache County had fallen for years, mimicking national trends: Since 1999, the number of youth in detention centers across the country has been cut in half. In Apache County, it wasn’t uncommon for the facility to go weeks without bringing any youth into custody, but it cost around $1.2 million per year to keep it open.
Apache County is small and rural, and the youth who live there lack access to social services and community resources that would support their development. So when the county’s Superior Court judge ordered the juvenile detention center to close, he mandated that it be repurposed as a community space for teens. The LOFT Legacy Teen Center, opened in 2017, offers a common area where youth can meet after school, free Wi-Fi, a music room, and other amenities. The in-house staff at the probation center helped with the remodeling, and the community sourced input from local high school students for the design.
The situation in Apache County, according to a new report from the Urban Institute, is not uncommon. Across the U.S., 1,275 juvenile detention centers have closed since 2000, representing a 42% decline. “A lot of states and localities have been taking a hard look at the return on investment for youth incarceration centers and finding that it’s not good,” says Samantha Harvell, senior research associate for the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Not only are youth detention centers fundamentally ineffective at reducing recidivism and improving outcomes for youth, they’re also enormously expensive. In Virginia, for example, it costs around $170,000 per year to incarcerate a single youth. That’s around 15 times more than it would cost to put the same teen through a community-based program (like restorative justice, which emphasizes healing and reconciliation) that has been shown to reduce recidivism rates by as much as 25%.
But as more localities move away from youth incarceration, its structures still stand. So the question remains: What should they do with the buildings?
That is what the Urban Institute sets out to examine in its report. Focusing on six productive repurposing initiatives, including Apache County, the researchers offer a set of recommendations for how communities can address these obsolete buildings that are often sites of trauma for people who interacted with them.
“There’s really no one-size-fits-all approach,” Harvell says. Some communities are deciding to tear down the buildings and start over with a new development; others are preserving the original structures and turning them into assets.
In Beaumont, Texas, for instance, the Al Price Juvenile Correctional Facility, after remaining vacant for six years, will become a recovery center and social-services hub, offering housing assistance, food, pro bono medical services, and substance abuse treatment for members of the community in need. The Beaumont Dream Center, which ultimately signed the new lease on the property after it became available in 2014, is leaving the buildings intact, but a thorough renovation process will provide the social services organizations and the people passing through–many of whom experienced the site as inmates–a fresh space. In the report, the Urban Institute notes that the $1.2 million the state spent each year to keep the empty facility running is equivalent to funding for a full year of alternative education funding for 34 youth, community-based mental health aid for 43 youth, and general support and diversion from incarceration for 67 youth.
In the South Bronx, the Spofford Detention Center, built in Hunts Point in 1957, was known for its poor conditions and mistreatment of inmates. The facility shuttered in 2011 after decades of campaigning by activists and community residents. Collectively, these same organizers and advocates prevented the building from being repurposed as another correctional facility, and pushed instead for it to be demolished and converted into a $300 million mixed-use development, offering 700 affordable housing units, retail, and manufacturing facilities. The construction of the new campus will create around 1,600 construction jobs that will go to South Bronx residents.
“Each development is very unique,” Harvell says. “The local community, the setting, the context, and the needs are really something we wanted to highlight.” Each successful repurposing effort highlighted in the report involved engaging local community organizations–as well as people who were once incarcerated in the facility–for input on how to proceed. But the Urban Institute was also careful to show that there are commonalities that communities can point to when making the case to repurpose shuttered facilities. One is that as youth incarceration rates continue to decline, these centers that remain open only to process a handful of youth are no longer economically viable. And two is that when they are shuttered, it benefits the community to engage in the design and repurposing process as early as possible. Sitting idle, these centers create enormous burdens on the community: When Spofford closed in the Bronx and sat idle for several years, it attracted rodents, drug use, theft, and vandalism, and degraded the conditions of the building to the extent that rehabilitation added $1 million to the cost of the new project.
While the productive repurposing of youth detention centers certainly shows a positive movement away from incarceration of young people, it also throws into relief how much more work there is to do to reduce adult incarceration. The U.S. remains the country in the world with the highest rate of incarceration (currently, around 2.3 million people are behind bars), and while reports show prison and jail populations declining, that’s largely due to policies in a handful of states that have driven numbers down; in other states, prison and jail populations are still very much on the rise.
But interaction with the criminal justice system often starts young. If a teen is incarcerated, the chance that they will also be incarcerated as an adult is very high. Harvell is hopeful that the movement away from youth detention will change that. “It’s time to not just rethink where kids are going, but to rethink the structure of incarceration entirely,” she says. Transforming former sites of incarceration into community resources perhaps indicates that the general shift away from incarceration and toward holistic, community-based solutions is truly underway.