Sunday, January 27, 2008

Reliance between rural towns and prisons falters in upstate NY

A story in today's New York Times, "Plan to Close Prisons Stirs Anxiety in Rural Towns," tells of fallout from Gov. Spitzer's recently announced plan to close several low and medium security correctional facilities in upstate New York. The facilities, established in the early 1980s, have been under capacity since 1996. Closing them will save money that can be used for rehabilitation programs and other needs.

The story provides some background on the rural prison building boom that began in the 1980s in places like New York (and which continues today in states like California).

The boom, experts say, provided employment, but it also fostered a cycle of dependency. Depressed rural communities came to rely on the prisons as a source of jobs, economic sustenance and services, with little effort devoted to attracting other viable businesses.

As for her story on upstate New York, journalist Fernanda Santos focuses on Franklin County, which is home to five state prisons and one federal prison. The prisons have a huge economic impact there, in jobs and otherwise. “There ain’t much else the local people could do for gainful employment,” said Peter Martin, 48, the town’s supervisor and a corrections officer at Camp Gabriels for 22 years.

Santos covers the political angle, too, noting that prisons are a "valuable political tool" because inmates are counted as residents in the U.S. Census. This often equates to more more state and federal aid and influences the drawing of congressional districts, too.

Sad as this story is, at least from the perspective of Franklin County residents whose livelihoods will be affected if these correctional facilities close, I feel worse still for rural California residents living near new prisons. Rural Californians have yet to see many of the economic benefits, such as jobs, that they have been promised in relation to the state's prison-building boom. Because most rural Californians have yet to realize any gain from their prison neighbors, unlike their New York counterparts, they have nothing to lose.

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