Bridging the Opportunity Divide

A Prison Sits Empty. A Nonprofit Moves In

November 20, 2017
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A Prison Sits Empty. A Nonprofit Moves In
GrowingChange is transforming an abandoned prison into a thriving community center for formerly incarcerated youth. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Could a model with roots in rural North Carolina provide a blueprint for the country’s glut of abandoned jails?

As a social worker accustomed to prodding the minds of adjudicated youth in the juvenile justice system, Noran Sanford has long been an inquisitive kind of guy. So when he discovered that six prisons had closed within a 50-mile radius of his home in rural Laurinburg, N.C., including one in the nearby town of Wagram, he began asking questions. Lots of them. “It was in that moment that I began putting together the idea that somebody should do something with these large sites,” Sanford says.

Enter the concept behind GrowingChange. The organization launched in 2011 to help reform and empower young ex-offenders, some barely into their teens, as they work to turn the abandoned prison in Wagram into a community farm and education center. The first group of 12 participants recruited by Sanford had all been arrested, expelled from school and kicked out of their homes — a combination of risk factors that Sanford calls the “unholy trinity,” especially when living in one of North Carolina’s poorest counties.

The Wagram site, which partially opened to the public for tours in October, has worked with 18 formerly incarcerated youth since its inception, with seven active participants today. The group was able to secure the property from the state’s Department of Public Safety, who agreed to donate the land after Sanford and two of his youth leaders pitched the idea. Sanford hopes they will eventually be able to sell the soil amendments and organic produce they’ve cultivated. So far, participants have grown food for needy local families, and are working to repurpose jail cells into aquaponics tanks and guard towers into climbing walls, among other initiatives. GrowingChange also provides intensive group therapy for its youth leaders.

This former prison has become a community farm and education center.Photo by Lewis Wallace/Scalawag

Analyzed over a three-year period, the prison-to-farm program was 92 percent effective in preventing recidivism among participants, Sanford says.

As the program has matured, so has its group of original participants, some of whom have stayed on to act as mentors to new recruits. Other young ex-offenders have been working to expand GrowingChange’s reach with a graphic-novel series, called Prison Flip Comics, that chronicles their troubled past; the goal is to use the comics as a learning tool distributed throughout North Carolina’s system of juvenile justice offices.

There are also teens who have embraced a more public-facing role, speaking at outside events and otherwise “sharing their stories about a personal experience of change,” says Simon Stumpf of Ashoka, which awarded Sanford a fellowship last year for his social entrepreneurship. Ashoka also provided funds to help scale GrowingChange. Sanford’s long-term goals include flipping 25 former prisons by 2025; currently, he estimates around 300 prisons sit empty across the U.S.

Despite GrowingChange’s small number of participants, other organizations have taken notice, reaching out from places as far away as the Netherlands, where Sanford traveled to present his model. And students from schools including the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have helped in areas like designing site plans and mapping the area with 3-D technology to share with the public what the site — which will eventually include housing for veterans and a counseling center — will look like once fully completed.

Sanford hopes to inspire prison authorities, government leaders, nonprofits, universities, foundations and others to think differently about unused prisons, taking an open-sourced approach by sharing what has, and hasn’t, worked at the Wagram facility. And that has him dreaming big.

“Our hope is to create a federated system of independent sites,” he says.

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