New Jersey officials passed a law on Thursday that permits the sale of a former state prison site in North Camden, opening up 16 acres along the city’s waterfront for redevelopment.
Riverfront State Prison opened in 1985 amid hopes that it would, according to then-Gov. Thomas Kean, ease overcrowding in New Jersey’s prison system and bring more than 300 jobs to the Camden area.
But by 2000s, a decade during which the New Jersey inmate population fell by 14.8 percent, Riverfront had begun to cost the state money. Meanwhile, some had started to question whether a prison complex even belonged in the middle of a troubled city in search of economic recovery.
The idea of closing one of the newer prisons in New Jersey met its share of controversy, with a number of state lawmakers arguing that any economic benefits wouldn’t make up for the dispersal of Riverfont’s 800 inmates to other, already-burdened prisons. But advocates for redevelopment in Camden said that the shuttering the complex was a long time coming.
“Riverfront State Prison has held Camden down since the day it opened on the waterfront,” the leader of a local civic group told the Star-Ledger at the time.
Riverfront closed in June 2009 — a move that has saved the state at least $43 million annually, according to NJ.com — and was demolished the following December. Since then, the site has sat empty, a huge grassy lot partly jutting into the Delaware River just north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
As Next City reported in a two-part series last summer, Camden has been the target of several ongoing redevelopment efforts in recent years, including a $132 million effort from the Campbell’s Soup Company to revamp its corporate campus, as well as a number of more standard “eds and meds” projects. Whatever the Riverfront site becomes (unsurprisingly, there was talk of luxury condos at least six years before the complex had even closed) could represent an extension of these various attempts to start a renaissance in the city.
But the closure could also represent a much more troubling narrative of urban prisons in the 21st century. As Katy Welter, a Chicago criminal justice analyst and advocate, wrote for Next City last December:
Prison closures will not only eliminate jobs, but also exacerbate dangerous conditions. Prison violence, especially, is a problem feared by prisoners and correctional officers alike. And because overcrowding undermines even the best efforts to administer a prison safely, it breeds violence. In 2009, the Commission on Safety and Abuse In America’s Prisons’ number-one recommendation for reducing violence was to reduce crowding.
Welter was writing about the closure of four prisons in Illinois, not a single prison in southern New Jersey. But one wonders whether the opportunity to add some housing to Camden’s waterfront has come at an unseen price.
For now, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which oversaw Riverfront’s demolition, is tasked with finding someone to purchase the site. The EDA will release information about its board meeting later today; we’ll update if the names of any potential buyers emerge.