Military base closures: A model for getting past the parochial politics of closing prisons

The BRAC process, which is used to close military bases, has successfully avoided political minefields. Could a similar process be created to close prisons?

by Stephen Raher, August 22, 2022

The Sentencing Project recently released an important report about prison closures and the need to thoroughly plan for repurposing former facilities. The report, Repurposing Correctional Facilities to Strengthen Communities, summarizes trends in prison closures, emphasizes the need to reinvest in communities that have been destabilized by mass incarceration, and provides case studies of closed prisons that have been reinvented–ranging from the widely-praised repurposing of New York’s Mid-Orange Correctional Facility to the entertainment-themed redevelopment of Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain prison (a tourist attraction that scholar Judah Schept has accused of being reliant on “interpersonal violence and depravity to narrate and sell…the ideology of punishment”).

The complex dynamics of repurposing closed prisons is an important problem for activists to confront. But we don’t even get to that stage without deciding to close correctional facilities in the first place. And closures are often blocked by local political leaders who insist that prisons are the indispensable key to host-communities’ economic survival. When prison populations decline and governors or legislatures make plans to close unneeded facilities, host communities reliably assemble in force to proclaim the “extreme difficulty” of finding replacement jobs and question the ability of their town to even exist in the absence of a prison. Elected officials often cave in the face of such local opposition.

But there is a model for closing government facilities notwithstanding strong local opposition. Military bases are spread throughout the country (the average congressional district receives about $80 million in annual spending from the Army alone), making it notoriously difficult to get base closures through Congress. Realizing that the country had too many military bases, in 1988 Congress chose to get past the local politics of base closures by creating the “base realignment and closure” (“BRAC”) process.

The mechanics of BRAC are complicated, but two components are particularly relevant to advocates seeking to close prisons. First, decision-making in the federal BRAC process is insulated from political pressure. The secretary of defense appoints an independent BRAC commission that studies the assets and needs of the military and then issues a report listing bases to be closed. Although the report is subject to review by elected politicians, the framework deliberately prevents piecemeal meddling: The president and Congress can reject the recommendations in their entirety, or they can allow them to go forward; they cannot pick and choose certain bases to remove from the closure list.

The second important aspect of the federal BRAC process is how local communities receive assistance in repurposing closed bases. Normal surplus property regulations are bypassed so that local communities can give input on the best ways to reuse facilities. The federal government also provides financial assistance for communities to plan redevelopment, upgrade utilities, demolish unneeded buildings, construct new buildings, and retrain workers.

Every year, states throughout the country debate closing prisons. Achieving closures–and making sure they are permanent–requires acknowledging the needs of local communities (both those that host closed prisons and those that have been depopulated through mass incarceration) and avoiding the political minefield of provincial pork-barrel politics. Adopting a modified BRAC-like process for closing prisons is an idea whose time has come.

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