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Mass Incarceration In Rural Communities: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

By David Gutierrez, Harvard Political Review

When the local economy of Susanville, California stagnated, the town tried to use a newly constructed prison as a recovery tool. Opened in the late 1990s, High Desert State Prison cost $272 million to build. High Desert, originally intended to be a low- to medium-security prison, became a Level III and IV correctional facility. This required the town to spend millions building roads, bolstering the police force, and expanding services to those newly employed by the prison. Yet Susanville’s current unemployment rate is at an astounding 10 percent and its job growth is negative. By almost every measure, the prison failed to stimulate Susanville’s economy.

Prison culture is deeply ingrained in American culture. Even American entertainment is reflecting this fact more and more, with shows about prison life like Orange is the New Blackand Prison Break becoming increasingly popular. Part of the reason prisons are such a mainstay of American popular culture may be that the United States has so many prisoners. The United States currently incarcerates 2.3 million of its citizens, 58 percent of them African American and Latino. But in all of this media attention about prison, little attention is paid to how prisons affect the communities where they are located. In fact, correctional facilities are completely out of sight for many Americans. Prisons close to cities, like the infamous Rikers Island off the coast of Manhattan, are now the exception. From 1992 to 1994, 83 prisons out of 138 were built in non-metro areas.

With the rise of stringent drug laws and the broken windows policy in the early 1990s, demand for new prisons grew, and so did the belief that prisons could serve as a tool for rural economic development. Thomas Coughlin, the New York Corrections Commissioner from 1979 to 1994, told Newsweek in 1990, “Prisons are viewed as the anchor for development in rural areas. We give our list to the Legislature, and the next day I get back the list of where our prisons are going to be. They pick ’em.” Prisons, of course, brought a multitude of prisoners to these rural communities, who, due to Census policy, count towards the total population of the community. The net economic effects of prisons on rural communities, however, appear to have been overstated because of faulty studies, the fact that rural towns follow the economic path of their respective state, and the difficulty and length of the correctional officer training process.

High Expectations Meet Reality

One of the origins of the misconception that prisons can revitalize a rural economy is research commissioned by governmental agencies who have political motivations to maintain their status and promote their own interests. Often, these groups are willing to promote laws that would increase the demand for prisons. For example, the California “Three Strikes” policy was strongly supported by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Many of the studies researching the economic impact of prisons were flawed and not peer reviewed. As a result of these studies, many rural towns lobbied for the construction of prisons in their town believing that these prisons would actually provide a sustainable job source for their residents.

According to a study that focused on the relation between the prison industry and employment between 1969 and 1994, however, the presence of a prison might actually harm the local economy. In fact, rural counties without a prison had faster growth in their income per capita and total earnings than their counterparts. Interestingly enough, employment grew at a slower rate when a new prison was built. But to understand the true impact of a prison on a rural community, the previous economic situation of that town needs to be accounted for. In rapidly growing communities, prisons aided the growth of public sector jobs. Towns that were struggling, meanwhile, were hurt by the construction of a new prison because the prison constrained private development. In general, researchers found that prisons did not improve the unemployment rate, median family income, or earnings. Instead, it appeared that the economic welfare of counties was more determined by that of the state they were in.

Follow the Leader 
Cañon City, located in Fremont County, Colorado, had correctional facilities very early on its history. Founded in 1860, Cañon City built its first prison, the first territorial prison of Colorado, just 11 years after its founding. The advent of the correctional industry so early in the town’s industry molded Cañon City into what it is today. Territorial Prison, as the prison is commonly called, is located right on Main Street while the remaining 13 prisons in the town are located a couple of miles away. Yet, according to local officials, Cañon City is much more than just a town with prisons. Lisa Hyams, the Executive Director of Cañon City Chamber of Commerce, told the HPR that new businesses, like IHOP and Big R, recently moved into the community. Hyams also mentioned the importance of its tourism industry with the flowing Arkansas River and the surrounding geography providing astonishing landscapes. Rob Brown, the director of the Fremont County Development Corporation, told the HPR that prisons should not be the main driving force for economic development as some thought in the ’90s. “[The prisons] have an extraordinary positive effect the moment they are created because you have major construction projects and a lot of activity. But once they’re up and running, then there isn’t a great deal of growth nor would you want a great deal of growth. That’s the only business that you run where your business diminishes in need instead of increasing in need.” Many of the jobs created by the prison industry only exist during construction and cannot actually be a driving force for sustainable economic growth.

These construction contracts also tend to be given to large, outside construction companies, since their costs are smaller than local competitors. One prison constructed in Franklin County, New York, for example, was built by a firm in Syracuse, had its heating and ventilation completed by a firm from Albany, and its plumbing completed by a different Syracuse firm. These contracts were cumulatively worth more than $31.3 million, little of which actually benefited the residents of Franklin County. Local workers also do not always have the necessary skills required to build the prisons, which further limits their ability to benefit from prison construction. These construction jobs were also limited to the residents of Fremont County as the local tradesmen had less than the necessary skills required to build the prisons and outside contractors and workers were brought in.

The economic plans for Fremont County are now based on bringing other businesses into the area. “The city of Cañon City, they’ve created a program where they waive building permit fees and water tap fees,” Brown explained to the HPR. “So if you choose to build in Cañon City then you’re able to construct without having to pay a building permit fee or a water tap fee.” These incentives then help attract both businesses and prisons to the community. The building fee for Boulder, Colorado is $5,979 for the first $1,000,000 of a building’s evaluation and $3.85 for each thousand dollars more. Nearby, in the city of Fountain, Colorado, the water fees can be as high as $310,081.

Difficulty to work

In 2012, 469,500 people worked as correctional officers. With such a difficult job, however, the turnover is extremely high—41 percent in private prisons and 15 percent in public prisons. The job of a correctional officer is stressful, dangerous, and extremely taxing. Jails are functioning day and night, and they require constant vigilance. Therefore, correctional officers need to be extremely well trained. In California, those who want to become correctional officers must submit an application, pass a written exam, and pass a physical fitness test. Each of these exams have long disqualification dates, ranging from 4 months to a year. Therefore, the stakes for these tests are high and require extensive preparation.

To reach these testing sites, many applicants have to travel long distances. In California, there are 35 adult institutions and 3 youth facilities. Yet the state has only three testing centers, and all are located near large cities. After training, many new correctional officers have to work in a facility in urban southern California, where more correctional officers are needed, instead of a prison nearby their own rural community. This mismatch between where correctional officers are from and where they work is true of Colorado, too. “A large percentage of the people that work in [Florence’s prisons] don’t necessarily live in Florence and live in larger areas like Pueblo or Colorado Springs,” Brown said. Therefore, correctional facilities in rural communities don’t necessarily create long-term jobs for the residents of those communities.

Prison Gerrymandering

For residents of rural communities, there is one positive aspects of having prisons in their backyard: giving them a greater share of political power than they otherwise would have. Prison gerrymandering, counting prisoners as residents of the town where their prison is located even though they cannot vote, has consequences for both urban and rural areas. This situation reeks of the British “rotten boroughs” of the late 1800s. When a household fills out the Census, it is asked to avoid counting certain residents; these excluded residents include members of the household who are currently incarcerated. Census officials then travel to prisons and correctional facilities to count the prisoners themselves. This is because of a vague U.S. Census rule that states that people are counted at their “usual residence,” which is defined as “the place where they live and sleep most of the time.” According to this rule, adult prisoners are counted at the facility they are incarcerated in instead of the towns they came from.

Some districts benefited greatly from counting prisoners as residents. In Wisconsin, the 53rd Assembly District, which has the highest concentration of prisons in the state, has 5,583 “residents” residing in jail. Although this district claims to have a large African American presence in its town, only 590 of its 2,784 African American residents can be found out of jail. In New York, seven state senate districts only met the minimum population after the prison population was accounted for in the 2000 Census. One western Maryland district received 18 percent of its population from a large prison complex. As a result, four residents residing in this district have the same political influence as five residents living somewhere else.

The most important aspect of the Census is its effect on the House of Representatives. Every 10 years, the House of Representatives’ 435 seats are reapportioned in order to account for the demographic shift that occurred in the previous 10 years. Given the increasing number of Americans that are incarcerated, this reapportionment ensures in increasing numbers of House districts that are overrepresented or underrepresented. Not only are districts with prisons more politically powerful than their neighbors, but the political power of the prisoners’ original districts, often urban communities, is reduced.

Reforming Prison Gerrymandering

Maryland, New York, and California have all passed laws to curb prison gerrymandering. These states, especially New York, which counted 71,446 prisoners at a different location during the 2000 Census, saw prison gerrymandering as a threat to their democracies. In August 2010 New York passed Part XX, a law that required the state Department of Corrections to collect the residential address of prisoners before they are incarcerated to allow for the correct demographics of each of its counties.

It is not just states, however, that are reforming their systems. Two hundred counties, towns, and communities have taken it upon themselves to not count the prison population when the district lines were redrawn. Howard County, Texas, for example, refused to count a prison population of 5,000 when redistricting occurred, which would have given four residents of the county’s First Precinct the same influence as 10 residents in other areas of the United States. Jerry Kilgore, who served as the Second Precinct Commissioner in Howard County from 1995 to 2010, fought against counting the prisoners as residents of the county. Kilgore told the HPR that this prison gerrymandering resulted in the county receiving more money for roads than it needed, and that angered him. “I don’t feel good about it, whether it’s local taxes or federal taxes. It’s still people’s money,” he said.

In Jefferson County, Florida the ACLU is fighting prison gerrymandering. Jefferson is a rural county of 14,050 residents and 17.2 percent of these residents live below the poverty line. By counting prisoners at the Jefferson Correctional Institution as residents in the county’s Third District, four residents in District 3 have the same voting power as seven residents in other parts of the County. Nancy Abudu, an ACLU Legal director working on the case, told the HPR that Jefferson County did not have to count its prisoners. “[County officials] got a demographer who was able to draw and show that it was possible [to create a plan that didn’t count prisoners]…Yet the county commission adopted a plan where prisoners constituted 40 percent of the voting population,” explained Abudu. There are 1.6 million Florida residents who cannot vote because they were convicted of a felony. Disenfranchising the prisoners yet still counting them in the population allows for districts with prisons to gain inordinate political power.

Toward Criminal Justice Reform in Rural America

While the use of prisons as a tool to drive rural economic development has been mixed at best, rural communities can attract other sorts of industries. The New Homestead Opportunity Act of 2011 incentivizes entrepreneurship and local businesses in rural areas by providing government-matched savings accounts called “Individual Homestead Accounts.” Other programs, like the Rural Enterprise Assistance Program, provide necessary assistance for ambitious startups and small business owners in rural communities. Rural economic development is moving towards a brighter future and away from its dark past during the 1990s.

Yet the problem of mass incarceration remains alive and well. Although the amount of incarcerated people is decreasing, this diminution is relatively small compared to the gigantic boom of the last four decades. Many Americans do not realize the sheer number of prison complexes around them because they are out of sight and thus out of mind. But just because they are invisible to the majority does not mean that they do not vastly affect the lives of minorities. The fight to reduce the number of prisons will be long and strenuous, yet so is every movement toward justice. After heavy criticism, the Census changed its policy so that willing states and localities could identify their prison populations and not count them. It is now up to individual towns and counties to make the ethical choice.

This article was originally published by the Harvard Political Review on May 27, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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