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Prisons: An Unsustainable Jobs Program

by Alexandra Cox

Employment has been at the center of national debates about the economy, as evidenced by the bickering in Congress and the protests on Wall Street. A number of jobs have been lost through the deinstitutionalization of prison systems in recent months, with layoffs of a number of blue-and white-collar workers in those institutions. Many of these workers come from impoverished rural communities, where jobs like theirs offer a modicum of stability and well-being. But it should also be acknowledged that prisons tear away at the stability and well-being of the individuals who are incarcerated within them, who themselves come from and return to communities with few stable jobs.

In order to address the problems that mass incarceration has created, we must look carefully at what prison does for the prospects of all people who pass through them.

Prisons are an unsustainable jobs program, as has been demonstrated by the layoffs of countless numbers of individuals who work in them over the past few months. Members of the Public Employees Federation, a white-collar public sector union in New York, recently rejected a contract offer by the state, which may result in the layoffs of over 3,000 workers. Many of these workers are teachers, social workers and counselors in prisons and juvenile facilities across the state. The contract they rejected included a rise in health care costs, furloughs and three years without raises. These workers, like many others in the state, now face bleak prospects as they seek to support their families. For the individuals who are incarcerated, this also means there will be fewer educational and social services resources available to them.

A number of the union workers come from rural communities in upstate New York like Delaware County. This county has very few jobs in part because a substantial part of the land is devoted to the New York City water supply. Residents there are engaged in heated debate about whether hydrofracking should be introduced as a salve for their economic problems; some fear it will spoil the natural beauty that drew them to the county, and others see the potential for jobs and for money. The county is also the site of two residential facilities for young people charged with crimes, one of which was recently downsized and the other closed, resulting in the loss of about 60 jobs.

Just a few hundred miles away, in Brownsville and East New York, two deeply impoverished communities in Brooklyn, where many of the young people incarcerated in the Delaware County facilities came from, the unemployment rate is over 19 percent. The Justice Mapping project has designated several “Million Dollar Blocks” in these neighborhoods, indicating the amount of money spent by the state on incarcerating people from those areas. Few, if any, jobs are available to the residents of these communities other than short-term, insecure service-sector work. For those who carry the stigma of a criminal conviction, such jobs are even further out of reach.

Delaware County and Brooklyn have both experienced the negative toll that incarceration levies on poor and under-resourced communities that exist across the country. Places like Westchester County and the Upper East Side, two of the wealthiest communities in New York, are buffered against this. Delaware County, with few other options for local development, sees prison jobs as a boon, despite how insecure those jobs may be and how little they may actually stimulate the local economy. The loss of 60 jobs, however small it may seem, has made a significant dent in this sparsely populated county.

The prisons of upstate New York have gobbled up the residents of Eastern Brooklyn at such a serious and substantial rate it would seem that there is an epidemic of incarceration that has struck the community. Governor Cuomo has announced over $4 billion in the development of nanotechnology industries in New York; neither Brooklyn nor Delaware County will see the benefits of this investment.

As rural communities across America have been devastated by the decline of manufacturing industries, low-level service-sector jobs at places like Wal-Mart offer the best hope for some of these communities (Wal-Mart has a store in Oneonta, NY, bordering Delaware County, and they are hoping to build one in East New York). These jobs offer few protections to their workers, such as the stability of health benefits, manageable hours and an adequate, living wage. Poor residents in both urban and rural areas are often left with few options but to take jobs at the Wal-Marts or McDonald’s of this world, or to seek out an escape from poverty through joining the military or working in a prison or jail. All of these options simply perpetuate violence and social inequality.

We must take the issue of rural and urban economic development seriously. In New York, Governor Cuomo has created a $50 million fund to support economic growth in communities affected by prison and juvenile facility closures, which is a step towards supporting alternative forms of development. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, together with George Soros through his foundation’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement, has funded the Young Men’s Initiative, which will provide substantial forms of employment and educational support for young men of color in New York City.
These programs represent strong steps toward meaningful change in the lives of people affected by imprisonment.

Yet, can more be done to actually prevent a retreat to prison as the solution for warehousing the poor and providing jobs for rural communities? Unless we throw a wrench in the cycle of opening and closing prisons in our states, and recognize that the state is a political and social ecosystem which nourishes these cycles of mass incarceration, then we are doing an injustice to the poor and working class people in this country who find that their well-being is at the mercy of a deeply volatile and unsustainable prison system.

Alexandra Cox is a Soros Justice Fellow who is studying the dynamics of resistance to reforms in the juvenile justice system. She is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. This article was originally published on the Open Society Foundations website (, and is reprinted with permission.

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