We ascend through darkness, the sound of our boots on the steep metal steps of the guard tower echoing against the cement walls. When we emerge onto a platform, Zeke Jones, Derek Cummings, and I look out at an empty prison yard. It's almost cartoonishly prison-like: two sinister cell blocks side by side, bars over the windows, loops of razor wire. We could be in Season Three of "The Walking Dead," walled off from the zombie apocalypse in this 1930s nightmare version of a prison.
But at this prison in southeastern North Carolina, the gates are open. At the center of the yard below us, there's a circle of neat brickwork with a sunflower garden exploding out of it. Down past another chain link fence is a field of pumpkins these guys just finished harvesting.
"This is going to be a climbing wall," Zeke says excitedly, explaining their future plans for the guard tower. "And there's gonna be an adventure slide over here, going down. We wanted a water slide but the insurance was too much."
Zeke and Derek are part of a group working on a multi-year vision to "flip" this prison. Their youth organization, Growing Change, officially acquired the Scotland Correctional Center site from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety in 2017. The plan is to turn it into a permaculture aquaponics farm where they teach community members these methods of growing food while conserving water and energy. They're also planning a climbing wall to raise revenue, a paintball field, a recording studio, and housing for homeless veterans. We're about 45 minutes outside Fayetteville, where there's a big army base, and a long way from North Carolina's centers of opportunity—there are four state prisons in this three-county area. But at this one, which has been closed since 2001, the cell gates don't lock. The teens come and go as they please, rolling up in a borrowed pickup truck, giving tours to curious adults like me.
Zeke wears oversized clothes and torn jeans. He's olive-skinned, with a pointy face and a wily dimpled smile beneath a shadow of a mustache. Derek is the bigger one, but still baby-faced. The two 18-year-olds have clearly spent a lot of time together. Like normal teenage boys, they take a while to warm up, but they also finish one another's sentences and defer to the other with a sheepish grin when they're not sure what to say.
They've been part of Growing Change, which works to help court-involved youth stay out of jail, for five years, since they were both in their early teens. Zeke was invited by his cousin, who was a part of the group. He grew up without a dad, and "had a little struggle," he says, with his mom. He ended up being raised by his grandparents and struggling to stay out of trouble. Derek joined after facing criminal charges in juvenile court. An officer told him there was paid work at the Growing Change community farm in nearby Laurinburg. Right from the start, he says, "everybody was so welcoming. We bonded like a brotherhood over the years."
Zeke says he knew Growing Change was for him after growing a giant crop of tomatoes during his first summer in the group. "We were going out in the community and giving them to families that need it. And just seeing the way that people took it… it gave my heart a good feeling." Zeke pauses, looking for the words to emphasize. "It made me feel good."
We tour the site, and the cells are classically creepy: metal bars covered in chipping white paint, metal cots bolted to the floor, long shadowy halls full of dust and debris. It's easy to imagine the horror of just one night in here after dark, the trouble someone could make for your mind by banging on the bars or yelling down the echoing hallway. Derek tells me matter-of-factly that men were kept in here 23 hours a day, seven days a week. This was the segregation unit.
Their plan is to tear out the cots and turn each cell into a huge fish tank for aquaponics. They'll use the fish waste to fertilize a planting system in the next cell block, then sell the produce for revenue. They already have experience with planting on hydroponic tables from their farm project in town. On the other side of the block, Derek and Zeke say each cell will become a private room, with walls and a door, to serve as a shelter for homeless veterans. They also plan to have mental health services and community events here.
My hosts are comfortable and proud as they guide me down a darkened hallway to the old prison infirmary. This room will become a museum exhibit, in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro museum studies program, that tells the history of prisons in North Carolina. This facility was one of North Carolina's notorious field camp prisons for some 70 years, which is how the guys learned about chain gangs.
"They had anywhere from 10 to 30 people on a chain gang," Derek says, matter-of-factly. "They would gather 'em up, and you could get a box of prisoners to go work on your farm for free, from sunup to sundown. Anything you needed done they would do."
Like most state prison systems, North Carolina's is closely tied to the history of slavery. The first state penitentiary was built by forced prison labor in the early 1870s, just after Emancipation. By the end of Reconstruction, it was routine for crews of prisoners to be "leased" to private businesses by the state at dirt cheap rates. A Department of Public Safety website says that starting in 1901, the prisoners were put to work on the state's railroads and highways: "Horse-drawn prison cages that moved from one worksite to the next housed the inmates." Scotland Correctional Center was one of the work camp prisons built around 1930, as people in prison became the primary laborers building state roads. The camp prisons housed about 100 people each, all of them working for miserable wages. The guys don't seem troubled by this history: twisted power relations and racism are in the background of just about everything here, and anyhow, this is their prison now.
We pop out of the infirmary into another part of the yard, deeper into the site, and the soft cold rain that greeted me here has picked up. Another structure, called the hot box, in the middle of the yard, was used to isolate prisoners who were acting out—it was called a hot box because there was no temperature regulation, and guards would leave guys in there to sweat it out. Growing Change plans to transform that into a recording studio."
Zeke and Derek both say they could have ended up in prison—and not a flipped prison. Being a part of this project helped them get off that path. They'd never been part of a group of boys like themselves before.
"We bonded because we were all going through the same struggle," Derek says. "We were all kicked out of the home, put on probation, on our way to jail, and it brought us together."
"It's like we always had each other's back," Zeke tags on.
For them, staying out jail and finishing up school have been huge accomplishments, and both of them plan to join the military soon. "That's how you make it out of here," Derek says. And making it out of here is definitely a big priority. "If someone from New York or something would come and see how we live, it would be a shocker to them."
"Turkey Shoot Every Saturday Night," reads a hand-painted sign on the two-lane highway en route to the old Scotland Correctional Center. Other than that, I saw a church, a lumber yard filled with fresh cut pines, a gas station, and a whole lot of trees.
Noran Sanford, who first had the idea to turn this prison into a teaching farm, is from Scotland County, born and raised. He's also a trained psychotherapist, and he started Growing Change in 2011 as a therapeutic community gardening program for young people who had been court-involved, or at risk of incarceration. At first, Growing Change focused on community gardens and a hydroponic system in the nearby town of Laurinburg, and Noran pitched it to funders as a five-year pilot program. Of the original 12 youth members, he says 11 of them stayed out of prison by the time they hit 18—a 92 percent success rate. Kids as young as 16 can be charged as adults in North Carolina.
When Noran brought the idea of transforming a prison to the Growing Change guys years ago, they weren't wild about it.
"Pretty much to a man they thought that was corny, until we walked them through the closed facility itself and explained, we need you to help us figure out what to do for this and other closed prisons elsewhere." Flipping a prison became their mission, and they're the first youth group that they know of to do anything like this in North Carolina. But there's a big opportunity for the model to spread; because of prison consolidation and the end of the field camp system in the 1980s and '90s, there are dozens of closed prisons like this one around the state, most of which still belong to the Department of Transportation.
Noran has shiny blue eyes and lively energy, with a former hippie vibe that might be due to his long gray ponytail. He's tall, and the kids in the program jokingly call him "the beautiful white man" or "the noble white man." He speaks softly and steadily, and his respect for the kids is clear, as is his sense that what they are doing is possible.
"See those big oak trees?" he says. "We're gonna have porch swings hanging from these. It's a sign of hospitality. That's one of the design challenges we're dealing with here—this place can seem inhospitable." Students from MIT are designing the wooden porch swings for them. In the early stages, they also worked with a design team of students from North Carolina State University; almost 70 community members attended a collaborative design event called a charrette to help imagine how the prison might be rebuilt.
But the need for transformation and community space goes far beyond just this prison. The tri-county area of Scotland, Robeson, and Hoke Counties, near the border with South Carolina, is one of the poorest parts of the state, with a third of the people in some towns living in poverty. The town of Laurinburg, with a population of just 15,000, has one of the highest crime rates in the country, and a median income half that of North Carolina. The community is a mix of white Scotch-Irish, Black descendants of formerly enslaved people, and Lumbee Native Americans, a tribe that's been struggling for federal recognition for 128 years.
Noran, who's 50, came home to Scotland County in 2001 to care for his ailing mother, who had dementia. He said his Black Flag and Public Enemy posters were still up on the walls of his childhood bedroom. He came with his wife ("a vegetarian from southern California") out of a life of adventure: he'd ridden his motorcycle across the country, lived all over. They stayed home with Noran's mom for eight years before she died.
After her death, Noran says he took his spouse out for a fancy dinner—noting that to do so meant a 45-minute drive clean out of the county—and brought a map of the United States and "these ridiculous big push-pins from Office Depot." He gave his wife three pins and said she should choose her top three places to go next. He shut his eyes and when he reopened them, all three pins were stuck here, in Laurinburg. The sense of community and family, and the sense that they could really make a difference here, had grown on her, and she wanted to stay. "Good news is I'm still married, bad news is, she's no longer a vegetarian," Noran says, eyes sparkling. "Cultural adaptation."
Right now, Growing Change is trying to raise $210,000 to pay for the first phase of the transformation: the guard tower climbing wall and swirly adventure slide, which the boys continually enthuse about. But Noran says fundraising hasn't been easy. There's not much money to go around in Scotland County, and big national foundations don't tend to focus on the rural South. "When I'm at one of these national conferences, I'm typically the only one based in and focused on the rural U.S.," Noran says. "Foundations are not to the point where they recognize the need."
Noran has traveled the country talking about the pilot program, about the idea of using a project as ambitious as flipping a prison to give young men a new way to understand their own worth. It's a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, he says, in which the youth "work on self-efficacy, confidence that you can get from point A to point B based on a realistic plan."
But he says another part of the work is looking at the power structures that put these youth "at risk" in the first place—and changing up the power dynamics, by helping the youth develop expertise and skills, rather than always being the ones receiving charity.
"It's incredibly important that we work on the power structure," Noran says. The guys in his group "come into a pretty powerless circumstance, so it's not surprising that we see a lot of failure. When my guys visit universities, they arrive as a subject-matter expert on converting a prison… guys that were kicked out of middle school and high school are working with PhDs to contribute to knowledge."
One of younger ones, Gerald Jacobs, is easy to imagine in the room with the PhDs: his big grin and shaggy bright brown curls barely conceal an openly hyperactive mind. Gerald, who's 15, is fast-talking with a deep country accent. But he's also childlike: he doesn't have stubble yet, and he's wearing a tie-dye shirt that says "Woodstock" on it.
Gerald's part Lumbee, and he's been working on a petition to support the tribe's federal recognition efforts since middle school. He says he was inspired by his eighth grade teacher.
"She really taught me that, since we're kids, we've got a bigger voice than adults since they can get fired, and that really spoke to me," he says. "She taught me a lot about my heritage and my tribe."
Gerald is reaching above his head and virtually swinging from the pipes of the defunct industrial prison kitchen as we chat, his big eyes glittering. If the tribe got federal recognition, and the federal funds that come with it, he says, "Oh man, that would be amazing. We could get money, which if we did, hopefully it would go to Robeson County. It would help many Lumbees who are distressed." Robeson County, just south of here, is where the largest concentration of Lumbees live, and it's even more poor and distressed than Scotland.
He doesn't give away any of his own financial problems, until I ask where he got his Woodstock shirt. He traded it from a girl at school. "I buy my own clothes so my mom doesn't have to."
But Gerald seems truly unconcerned about himself, talking a mile a minute instead about a plan in Laurinburg to spend $10 million on a new city hall. Dozens of protesters have been turning out at council meetings, asking the city to make better use of that money. "Maybe with that money we can stop the violence that's going on," he says.
Noran just recruited him to the group a few months ago, and he's already a committed advocate. "Scotland County really doesn't offer many opportunities like this. But there are six closed prisons around here," he says. What if the $10 million went to flipping those prisons, too? "Take that money, find kids who wanna do something with it!"
After a second tour of the site from an overexcited Gerald, we reconnect with the group. Derek, the biggest one, grabs little Gerald and jostles him. Tonight's going to be "a historic cookout," says Noran, the first time this prison has probably ever had a cookout. It's still drizzling, and starting to get dark, so we gather under an old brick gazebo, roof half busted and rain coming in, with two big Weber grills set up on the side that still blocks water. The guys—the older Zeke and Derek, and littler Gerald and his friend Jaheim—gather around the two grills, shivering and putting their hands close to the heat, messing with each other and making light fun of Noran. They shine their cell phone lights while he cooks up steaks for the group.
"Noran, what'd you think about the election recently?" Derek pokes at him. He won't comment on politics with the guys. "What election?" Noran jokes.
"I'm a libertarian," says Zeke, who's constantly messing with people, deadpanning.
Someone calls someone gay. "So what if he is?" Noran asks. Yeah, the other guys pile on, so what? There's consensus and a few scattered comments about hot guys. "If Kurt Cobain was alive," Gerald says, "I'd be with him for sure. He's hot." He starts showing the other guys videos of Cobain live in concert in the early '90s—he died well before the Growing Change crew was born.
"It's important that love is in the mix, too," Noran says, without judgement.
Dinner is served at fold-out tables inside one of the newer buildings, a warehouse-type space that's the only building with running water and lights here so far. While the steaks are setting, the kids get more and more hyper, putting music on their phones and spinning and dancing across the warehouse. There's lots of jostling, riotous laughter.
I take a minute with the fourth boy, Jaheim McRae, nicknamed Ja-Ja, who's quiet, has a sweet round face, and is attached to his phone but also clearly stoked to be here. He's 14 years old and his mom brought him to North Carolina from New York to grow up someplace safer. Ironically, Jaheim got shot in the leg at a party last year.
"The person that shot me, he was very young. A lot of times those are the people who carry firearms around my community—young people. I want to stop the youth from doing negative things," he says. The bullet went in a few centimeters from his kneecap, missing a vein. "I could have bled out to death, or been paralyzed."
For him, the incident was an awakening. He re-committed himself to school and to social change, started a Black Lives Matter chapter in his eighth grade. "In Laurinburg, we don't have anything for the youth to do. We used to have a skating rink, that was fun. We need something that youth can go to and have fun. That's the idea of the prison, in a couple years—that's what we plan on having the prison for."
He and Gerald are both obsessed with this closed skating rink in town, trying to find an adult who will reopen it and give kids like them someplace to go. But for now, the prison is their sanctuary. "Also, we're gonna have a really big paintball field. That will be pretty cool too," Ja-Ja says with a shy smile.
We wait quite a while for the last dinner guests to show up—they're also the ones with a table cloth and silverware for this warehouse feast—and the guys get more and more hungry, gazing ferally at the baked russet potatoes Noran has brought for the whole group. Finally the other adults arrive, and there's hollering as Derek and Zeke run to help unload the supplies and a couple space heaters. It's cooling off fast in here. Noran looks at me with a smile. "A little bit longer and it would've gotten more of the Lord of the Flies element going on."
As we sit for dinner, Noran suggests that everyone give thanks around the table. Zeke gives his thanks like an Oscar speech, thankful for the group, for Noran, for the food, his family, for all the support he's received along the way. "I'm thankful for everything," he says. Derek gives thanks for being alive and well, and the other guys mock him a little: "booooring."
"There was a time when that was touch and go for Derek," Noran says calmly. "So he's thankful for it."
I thank them for sharing dinner with me, and Gerald grins, ever eager: "Welcome to the family!"
It's still raining outside, and the space heaters keep short-circuiting the electricity. But the boys' warmth towards one another dominates the space. Noran says even though the community doesn't have much money to put towards Growing Change, the response has been generous. They can get people to sit down with them, help out in kind. They have partnerships with universities, local businesses, the EPA.
"There's a tradition, or an expectation [in rural North Carolina], of helping those who are in need… you can walk into folks' offices and they may or may not agree with you, but you are typically welcomed," Noran says. "People have had to create something from nothing for a long time."
Beyond the warehouse, it's pitch dark now. There's not a store, or a stoplight, for some miles in any direction. Outside of this cold warehouse, there's really nowhere else for kids to go. Gerald tells me it means a lot of kids start doing drugs young, imitating their parents.
"I can't blame nobody for doing drugs. People who do drugs, that's their way to escape reality. All in all, reality in this world isn't the best."
It hurts me a little—that this virtually prepubescent kid is so clear on this point. But there's never a hint of self-pity in his voice. He's continually ebullient. He has fantasies about living a city life someday, far from Scotland County.
"I would like to go to a city, I would like to work there and make good money, and bring it back to Scotland County. I would like to run a skating rink, help the kids, start a Boys and Girls Club…" Gerald goes on, about what he and Jaheim and their friends are trying to create. What, I ask, does he want to be when he grows up? "From when I was little, I wanted to be president. But now that seems too complicated. I still haven't settled, but I'm only in ninth grade. Now I just want something that makes good money, so I can bring it back to Scotland County. I'd love to have a job like that."