Yes, In My Backyard


Raphael Sperry

In 2013, Tracy Huling, creator of the Yes, In My Backyard website, interviewed California-based architect Raphael Sperry on reusing decommissioned prisons.

TH: Could you describe your background and interests?

RS: I’m a licensed architect and for the past five years I have been a green building consultant as well. In that capacity I worked on mostly large projects: San Francisco Airport, Berkeley Law Library, a bunch of commercial office towers and laboratories. I was helping with energy efficiency, occupant health, and gaining certifications to document their achievements. Before that I worked on design of smaller school and residential projects, plus a straw-bale winery building, which was a really fun agricultural project.

I’ve been involved with Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) since 2000, first as a member and more recently as a board member and now president. ADPSR is a thirty-two year old nonprofit that works for peace, environmental protection, social justice, and the development of healthy communities.


TH: What kinds of projects or activities related to prison closure and re-purposing have you been involved with?

RS: Through ADPSR I have focused on a lot of the problems around prisons, including repurposing. One of the problems is where prisons have been built, which is in mostly rural areas. In rural counties, prisons have held back economic development (see the work of Prof. Gregory Hooks on that) and of course have also caused major dislocations for the families of prisoners who overwhelmingly come from urban areas. I think the problems of urban areas get more attention. To repair the damage to urban communities you need to build missing pieces of community infrastructure in those areas, such as better schools, employment opportunities, and community spaces – although of course every place is unique, which is where architecture comes in.

Prison repurposing comes in when you propose that the closure of the prison creates the responsibility to plan for those unmet needs of the community where it is. ADPSR has done workshops in Stockton and Chowchilla, California – both homes to large prisons that were proposed for closure or transformation – and we listened to community members talk about their visions for their towns. What I heard is that, like urban communities with many people in prison, rural areas are in need of better education and recreation opportunities for their youth, more employment to support families, and a revival of community life. Not all of these activities can be done, or are best done, on the site of a closed prison, but it is an important opportunity to investigate. Prison infrastructure is generally quite valuable and can support many other future uses.


TH: What have you learned from the projects and activities you’ve been involved with?

RS: One thing I have noticed is that the desires of a community are diverse, so it really depends on who you talk to as to what proposals you might come up with. For example, in our workshop in Stockton we had participation from youth as well as adults. A group of adults proposed repurposing a closed prison as a community college, and a group of kids proposed turning it into a water park, putting water slides on the roofs of the old cell blocks. (That’s not as silly as it sounds: if you call it a community center, you could note that a lot of recently built community centers actually have water slides in them.) And it might be a valuable idea, but if we hadn’t listened to kids, it would not have happened.

In Chowchilla, the Chamber of Commerce wanted to look at food storage and processing uses for the prison site, to expand the primarily agricultural business of the town (it’s in California’s very productive Central Valley). Other people wanted to try and attract a maintenance yard for the future high-speed rail system. Once you start looking at the space requirements of the different uses, and what kinds of buildings are on the prison campus, you can talk about whether different agendas can fit together. A large state prison isn’t just a series of cellblocks – it typically has many other buildings that are easier to reuse, like central kitchens, vocational training buildings, and administration buildings. There was enough there to offer buildings well-suited to a number of potential new users.


TH: What are the key differences in adapting a prison for reuse in an urban area versus a rural area versus a suburban area?

RS: ADPSR did a workshop in Los Angeles studying potential reuse of Men’s Central Jail (a facility that is loathed by many community groups, and which the Sheriff himself tries to blame for the very high levels of violence that happen there.) The multistory nature of the building was challenging, and there was a pretty strong case made for replacing it with a park, which would have solved that problem and brought some much-needed green space to a crowded neighborhood. On the other hand, the amount of surrounding uses guarantee that the site is highly desirable and would be able to support many different mid-rise uses such as a movie multiplex or a branch of the community college.

In contrast, in rural areas you have to think more carefully about who will want to come to the site and how they would use it. The uses will probably be lower in intensity. While the rural areas often have extensive low-rise housing blocks, there isn’t always a need for more housing in rural areas (as there is in many cities). In a rural area the market is more diffuse and the number of potential users is smaller.

I was very impressed with the way that the Canadian province of Ontario planned the reuse of a closed prison. I’ve seen some American states simply put rural sites up for auction, and then act surprised when there are no bidders – but given the unknown potentials for toxic contamination, historical designations, age of infrastructure, and other features, it takes a lot of “due diligence” work for a potential buyer to understand what a closed prison is really worth as a piece of real estate.

In Ontario, the government hired appraisers and experts, prepared a detailed study of the property conditions, and engaged in market research to identify likely buyers. That’s the way to deal with transferring large and complicated rural prisons so that local communities aren’t stuck with it. Since states built the facilities, at the very least they should take responsibility for decommissioning them responsibly.


TH: Do you have any advice for architects who want to become involved in adaptive reuse of prison buildings and property? How should they go about getting involved?

RS: First, people should be aware of the potential here. Everything from political shifts to state finances to human rights issues are pushing towards more prisons being closed in the United States, as we work our way towards an incarceration rate more in line with the rest of the world (we’re currently the world’s leading jailer, but that’s another story). We have thousands of prisons and jails, but the number of prisoners is shrinking, so more and more prison buildings will go empty in the future. So it’s going to happen, and that can be challenge, but of course it is an opportunity as well for communities that are prepared for it.

I would pay attention to the specifics of each site you are looking at. When people think of the architecture of prisons and jails they think of secure housing units: low-rise buildings of concrete construction with barred cells and small windows. But prisons contain many other building types that may be more ready for reuse: buildings for light industrial activity, training or office buildings, dormitories that were low-security housing, and large outdoor spaces. Some prisons have farms. Some have historic structures with distinctive architectural details that may attract tourism or specialty tenants.


TH: Do you have any advice for local officials and community leaders involved in repurposing correctional facilities about how to 1) find the right architect for the project and 2) how to work with architects toward the result they want?

RS: For these projects you want an architect who will listen to your community and engage in a re-planning process, not just someone who can provide a building design (although that should come later). You want to have a process of finding out what the community’s assets and aspirations are, and then figuring out how the parcel can engage with those assets and realize the vision. This is extra work, and you can’t expect an architect to do it for free, but you can look for professionals who will help to find the funding needed for this process. (As I said above, one place you can go is to your state government, who should feel some responsibility for the site they built.)

In working with an architect, maintain a collaborative relationship, have open communication, and make sure you have clear expectations from the outset. It’s not any firm that will partner with a community group on a large and complex site like a reused prison, and if they are in it for the long haul – it may take years to fully reuse the site – they will be a great resource to the community over time.

This architecture firm will need to get some architectural contracts out of the experience to stay in business, especially if they are a small local firm investing their marketing budget into attending community meetings for little or no fee, but this can appear to create a no-bid situation or lead to difficulties in negotiating a fair fee for the work. To avoid that appearance, the community group might award some pieces of the project to other firms than did the planning, or at least invite others to bid in order to make sure you are getting a good price.

Now that’s fair business, but on the other hand, it’s hardly fair for a small firm to invest deeply in a planning process or a large and complex site only to see the best building commissions on it go to competitors who are perceived as cheaper or more prestigious. It’s not an all-or-nothing situation, but I would hate to see a productive relationship between architect and community client derailed down the road over who gets which pieces of work.

Being respectful, being good listeners, and having clear expectations of each other at the outset should provide a foundation for success.


TH: You work with criminal justice activists. What are your thoughts about the roles that these activists can play in adaptive re-use and how best they can play these roles?

RS: I have a lot of respect for criminal justice activists. They have taken on the role of speaking for people who are largely invisible and sometimes even despised, and they tend to represent the interests of the communities where people in prison come from, which are some of the toughest communities to live in, having suffered from decades of neglect and disinvestment. They have strong moral clarity and often understand the connections between incarceration and other social problems like poverty first hand. They have more expertise on what is going on in troubled communities than anyone else, and that expertise is essential in trying to address any of the problems that land people in prison. I’ve found that criminal justice activists are very creative in coming up with ways to reuse prisons to address a broad range of social ills.

Of course, the communities where prisoners and prisoner advocates come from are not usually the same as the communities where prisons are located –they are often separated by hundreds of miles as well as a racial and cultural gap that is just as wide. But I’ve noticed that the concerns for both communities are often similar.

In Chowchilla, California when local residents were discussing possible reuse of a prison in their town, the criminal justice activists at our workshop – who were more in touch with the prisoners inside than local residents – told the group that prisoners inside requested that a memorial to their lives in that place be included in the plans. They did not want to obstruct the town’s desire to move beyond being a prison town, but they didn’t want to be forgotten, either.

The activists also told us that over the years prisoners had repeatedly raised funds for local charities providing winter clothes, food drives, and the like. This really humanized the history of the place and helped move beyond the superficial politics around prisons to deeper questions about how the places where we live impact our lives. People in prison have broken the law but they are still human and are still citizens. I think respecting their voices and their advocates, even if it’s challenging, ultimately leads to a more informed and meaningful outcome for reusing a prison.


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