Since 2007, many states across the country–particularly in the south–have been responding to impending crises in their criminal justice systems with systemic reforms aimed at reducing recidivism, easing overpopulation, and adopting programs that seek to divert lower-risk, non-violent offenders towards rehabilitation, where appropriate, in lieu of incarceration.

The results have been impressive. Texas has lowered its revocation rate–the rate at which parolee’s violate their terms and return to prison–by 46%, enjoyed its lowest crime rate since 1968, and shuttered three prisons. These reforms have also helped Texans realize savings of around $3 billion, all while preserving public safety.

But with such successes come other questions for communities to confront, particularly rural ones: What to do with closed prisons? One non-profit organization in North Carolina–which has twelve of them–has an innovative solution that could be a springboard for other states to follow.

As part of‘s “Flip the Prison” initiative, the idea is to convert decrepit detention facilities in North Carolina–like one in Scotland county–into multi-use community centers, where educational and diversionary programs could shift youth from the court system, provide residential college internships for returning veterans and provide wellness education in areas of poor health.

Solitary confinement cells might become fish tanks for water-based agriculture projects, guard towers could be converted into rappel towers, and warden houses would become living spaces for veterans working on college degrees.

Noran Sanford, chairman of the board at, told the Fayetteville Observer in a recent article that the initiative “could help communities find uses for other closed prisons”:

“This will be the first application in the nation of this model,” he said. “This is designed to be a replicable model that we can use at other sites.”

If state officials sign off on the proposed use of the site–Sanford and Co. is currently studying particulars–the organization would be able to purchase the site at a reduced cost.

According to Sanford, most of the funding for the estimated $900,000 price tag would come from private sources, with possible corporate funding, governmental grants, and other support rounding out the rest.

Ultimately, the program, says Sanford, seeks to help give youth facing detention, as well as returning veterans and other needy members of the community resources to change their outlook on life:

“It’s been my experience, working in the trenches for 10 years, unless you treat the whole person, you’re not going to see the change you want to see.”

“We have to ask the youth to change and give them the resources to make it work. We have to ask institutional power systems to change and give them the resources to make that happen.”

Photo: Cindy Burnham, Fayetteville Observer