Now reading

How Does Moving a Prison Complex Support Development in ...

How Does Moving a Prison Complex Support Development in Baltimore City?

Earlier this year, Jeff La Noue authored a blog post supporting the idea that moving Baltimore City’s prison complex would improve the area’s aesthetics and thus promote development in adjacent neighborhoods. La Noue stated “City Marketing 101 says you shouldn’t put your jail as the welcome mat to your downtown or your top research hospital.” Makes sense. He

Earlier this year, Jeff La Noue authored a blog post supporting the idea that moving Baltimore City’s prison complex would improve the area’s aesthetics and thus promote development in adjacent neighborhoods. La Noue stated “City Marketing 101 says you shouldn’t put your jail as the welcome mat to your downtown or your top research hospital.” Makes sense. He then proposes moving it to Jessup, “home to several other prisons,” and located well beyond Baltimore’s 695 Beltway. Let’s think about this.

Map of Baltimore Prison Complex in Baltimore, Maryland

Many existing articles and literature consider crime and how it impacts the true goals of urban planning:

  • Crime can alienate a city and inhibit tourism, investment, and social cohesion, especially in marginalized communities.
  • Crime is more likely the result of sprawled development and increased mobility that alienate people from communities, rather than a result of dense populations in city centers.
  • Crime can be reduced through “passive surveillance” and the environmental design of densely populated, mixed-use areas where people feel connected to their communities.

Crime creates the need for undesirable land uses such as prison complexes, and this particular prison is a physical manifestation of the stigma created by Baltimore’s notoriety as a crime-heavy city. Does removing the prison get rid of the real problem of crime? Existing conversations about moving Baltimore City's prison complex seem focused on placing the prison and the issue of crime out of sight and out of mind. In the image below, the prison complex is visible from the popular Mt. Vernon neighborhood.

Prison Complex from Mt. Vernon Neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland

La Noue referenced New York City’s Rikers Island, a prison separated from the city it serves. His comparison to New York City is one relying on the common assumption that NYC is faring better than Baltimore in terms of crime and poverty. In response to a similar sentiment created by a New York Times article, Next American City points out the issue of confusing visibility with the actual existence of crime and poverty. Diana Lind concluded “New York and D.C. just hide their inequality better.” Is hidden inequality what Baltimore should strive to achieve?

I disagree with the reasons and motivations behind suggesting that the prison be moved. By putting development opportunities first and crime prevention second, serious potential impacts of moving the prison are missed:

  •       Increasing the time and cost of transporting prisoners,
  •       Further alienating prisoners by adding distance from their families and support systems, and
  •       Separating the prison from ancillary services such as court houses and legal counsel.

Alternatively, the move could provide an opportunity to create an entirely new facility, far removed or not, that is built to serve a greater purpose beyond holding and punishing criminals. San Francisco’s County Jail No. 5 participated in a restorative justice workshop for inmates to learn about architecture and how to design better prison facilities - “the goal was to make the needs of victims central, and by doing so affect the broader healing for all, communities included.” The move is a good idea if the existing facility cannot be renovated to better serve crime prevention; how the land is developed after the move should be a secondary concern.  I would therefore edit La Noue's proposition - if investing: design a prison to serve crime prevention from the before, during, and after stages of a prison sentence.

Do you think the physical location and design of prisons can better serve crime prevention and other urban planning goals?

Credits: Images by Jade Clayton. Data linked to sources.

Intern photo

Jade Clayton recently received her B.S. in economics and business administration from Towson University in Towson, Maryland. She is currently pursuing a post-baccalaureate certificate in internet application design, and hopes to receive a Master’s in...

  • Thank you for continuing the discussion about relocation the prison/jail complex. I also applaud the idea that the design of prisons might assist in improving inmate experiences so they readjust better when they get out. I also agree that transporting prisoners, alienating prisoners from their families, and ancillary services are significant considerations.

    You reference crime and inequality in NYC and Washington relative to Baltimore. Discrepancies between these cities are not caused by prison location. Baltimore is a poor city with little money for social services despite high taxes. In fact, it has closed recreation centers recently and has many others in disrepair. If the city had more revenue streams, it could do all kinds of things that would improve quality of life include offer services for the poor and better schools. (part of the city’s revenue challenge is that has such a large percent of its land devoted to non-profit non-tax paying entities like Hospitals, Universities, even parks and golf courses, and social services like the prison, without having many larger tax payers such as a fortune 500 company and other tax paying entities)

    On the map shown, it shows the prison complex, but not all the far greater number of acres of disinvestment to the north, south, and east (The west side is the highway) If the land could be developed densely and take advantage of being near Johns Hopkins Hospital and downtown, it would create millions in tax revenue, a portion of which could be set aside for social services.

    The article also mentions sprawl. Maryland is projected to grow by 1 million residents by 2035. Opening dozens of acres to development in Baltimore’s economic center would allow for walkable, transit friendly neighborhoods and also jobs for city residents. More growth in the center might reduce more peripheral employment development, which is very hard for the car-less to reach. That too would enhance opportunity for Baltimore city’s urban poor.

    • Thank you for your comments, Jeff! I enjoyed your piece about moving it, and originally thought I’d just write a blog post expanding on the same idea. Once I started writing, these other ideas and alternatives came to mind, and I’m glad you can appreciate some of the major points.

      I like the idea of focusing development near the center, but I’m skeptical of Baltimore’s ability to develop without further alienating the city’s urban poor as opposed to enhancing their lives. If the city moved the prison and cleared that land for new development, I just don’t think the question “How can we make sure all of the new development around here benefits the urban poor” would take priority over “how can we use new development to attract new and wealthy residents?” Is it bad to attract new residents? No. Like any other major changes that could happen in the city, the move would likely solve some problems and create or worsen other problems, especially if done without considering all these different perspectives. The biggest take away I hope that anyone gets from reading this is that IF the prison really were moved that Baltimore consider more than just what’s to be developed afterward. Basically, that Baltimore consider all cause and effect around moving the prison complex.

      Will you be writing any more about the prison complex or investment into that area? It sounds like you have a lot more to say.