Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"The Big House in a Small Town"

That's part of the title of a paper recently posted on The rest is "Prisons, Communities, and Economics in Rural America," and the author is Eric Williams of Sonoma State University. Here's the abstract:
This prison building boom in the 1980’s and 1990’s has given birth to an interesting phenomenon; whereas towns used to fight against having a prison located in their community, they are now fighting to land one. Considered foremost on the list of NIMBY’s (not in my backyard) or LULU’s (local unwanted land use) just fifteen years ago, towns are now lobbying to have states, private corporations and the federal government put new correctional institutions in their communities. Rural communities look at prisons as a sound economic development strategy; a stable recession-proof industry that promises secure jobs and a new economic base. Because of this, States can now be more discriminating in deciding where they will locate the prison, leading to bidding wars between towns who offer substantial incentive packages for the privilege of becoming home to society’s outcasts.

But the effect of prisons on a community is broad, effecting governmental and social relations in addition to economic ones. Erving Goffman has called prisons a “total institution,” meaning that in sociological terms, they function as a world onto their own (Goffman 1961). They may be total, but they do not exist in a vacuum. They are on land within a municipality and how these two seemingly independent entities work-or don’t work- together has large repercussions for the people who work in the facility as well as the overall community. In gauging the effects of a prison on a community, one can look at hard economic or survey data, but I have chosen to use a more qualitative method, that of the ethnography.

In 1991 The Humboldt Journal of Social Relations dedicated an entire year to the problems involved with community opposition to prison siting and in 1992, Crime and Delinquency devoted an entire issue to the same problem. But now, all of that has changed and the NIMBY model is no longer dominant as towns now go to extraordinary lengths to land a prison. After the end of the oil boom left their economy in shambles, Hinton, Oklahoma actually borrowed $19 million from American Express to build a prison and then hired a private prison firm to run it. In Tamms, Illinois, the staunchly democratic town has a billboard thanking Republican Governor Ryan for putting the states newest supermax prison there. In Stone Gap, Virginia the town paid the local community college to start a guard-training program and sent 500 people to Richmond for the committee hearings on the siting to help them land one of the states two new supermaxes.

Places as disparate as Lovelock, Nevada, a former ranching town, and Corcoran California, a former agricultural stronghold, have turned to prisons as the solution to their economic woes. From the town’s standpoint, it’s a growth industry that is recession proof and will give them a number of decent paying jobs as well as some ancillary industrial growth. The town’s may or may not realize actual growth, but there is much more to the story. Understanding what actually happens during and after the siting is at the core of this paper.

This paper focuses on two towns, Beeville, Texas and Florence Colorado. Both are small rural communities who began the lobbying process in the late 1980’s. Beeville had fallen on hard economic times with the decline of the Texas oil boom and Florence, though never an economic hot spot, lost a significant number of jobs and residents with the decline of the mining industry. Both communities lobbied hard land a facility, Beeville from the Texas Department of Corrections and Florence from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and both have since become the site of multiple facilities. They are both good examples of the new rural prison towns that have cropped up in the past 25 years.
These latter two towns that Williams mentions have populations of 13,129 (Beeville, Texas) and 3,653 (Florence, Colorado).

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