Communities That Feed on Prisons

The New York Times has an article today on communities that feed off the prisons within them. When America, prison nation, closes one of them, it can threaten the very existence of such towns.

As rural economies across the country crumbled in the 1980s and the population of prison inmates swelled, largely because of tougher drug laws, states pushed prison construction as an economic escape route of sorts. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, an average of four prisons were built each year in rural America; the rate quadrupled in the 1980s and reached 24 a year in the 1990s, according to the federal Agriculture Department’s economic research service. The boom, experts say, provided employment, but it also fostered a cycle of dependency.

Count me among those with no sympathy. America's over-incarceration policies mean corporations make billions and the federal government throws millions to these communities in subsidies.

Take the town in the article, Gabriels, New York, which has a prison recently ordered closed by Gov. Spitzer. [More...]

The reliance on Camp Gabriels extends well beyond jobs. Small businesses have staked their survival on the prison workers who patronize their stores. Local governments and charities, meanwhile, have come to depend on inmate work crews to clear snow from fire hydrants, maintain parks and hiking trails, mow the lawns at cemeteries and unload trucks at food pantries.

....Four of Mrs. Keith’s nine children work in state prisons, she said, including a son and a daughter at Camp Gabriels. “Everyone around here either works in the prisons, or has a relative who works in the prisons, or knows someone who works in the prisons,” said Mrs. Keith, 78. “My kids were able to build their homes and raise their families here because of the prisons. If it weren’t for the prisons, they would have had to leave the area.”

The entire county feeds off prisons.

The correction industry is big business in Franklin County, which has five state prisons and one federal prison in its 1,678 sparsely populated square miles. In the town of Brighton, which encompasses Gabriels and five other hamlets, the prison is perhaps the only place where someone with a high school diploma can earn a decent wage and benefits.

“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.

There are political ramifications as well:

Prisons are also a valuable political tool, because inmates are counted as local residents, allowing communities to receive more state and federal aid for emergency services. Mr. Martin said that he was not yet sure how the town of Brighton stood to lose if Camp Gabriels closed, but he added, “We’re concerned about losing any kind of aid here.”

Conservatives get it.

Edmund J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative group [says] “There should be other ways of improving the economic situation in upstate New York that doesn’t involve filling upstate New York with prisons.”

Labor unions, on the other hand, don't get it.

Union leaders and many Camp Gabriels workers said they would not give in easily, though. They organized a rally in Saranac Lake on Thursday and a letter-writing campaign, hoping to convince state legislators that the prison was worth saving.

A new book arrived in my mailbox this week, "Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration?" Its contributors include lawyers, ex-prisoners, journalists and advocates.

Some stats: The U.S. accounts for 5% of the world's population but is responsible for incarcerating 25% of the world's inmates. In the last 30 years of our get tough on crime policy, our state and federal prison population has jumped from 300,000 to 2.3 million.

The book examines who profits from our policies of mass imprisonment. The answer ranges from "investment banks that issues bonds for prison construction to the companies that staff and manage the prisons to the organizations that provide health care."

The book finds that $186 billion tax dollars a year "intended for the public good" goes to "private prison companies, churches, investment banks, guard unions and medical corporations."

Bottom line: 1 of every 137 Americans is in prison today. And we're paying for it.

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    This is another one of my concerns (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by NaNaBear on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 02:07:39 PM EST
    Thanks for posting. This along with the use of paid informants in communities is something the public needs to know more about. Its a complex situation. Congress and on a state and local level needs to hold more public hearings that will better inform the public about whats going on.

    As for second time offenders, I think it depends on the offense. Some violent offenders are getting less time than non-violent low level drug offenders.

    I agree with Webb, that there has to be a better way to use tax payers money to punish non-violent offenders.

    Incarcerating people for long periods helps companies that have contracts with the prison industry.  Those that invest stock in prisons also benefit.  Some small towns get more representatives in Congress( usually Reb.)and more federal aid. This takes money away from the cities the prisoners come from.
     There so much behide all of it, that needs to come to light.
    Those that break the law should be punished, but it needs to be done fairly and for the right reasons.

    Human Farming (none / 0) (#1)
    by squeaky on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 11:12:47 AM EST
    Is basically what it is. It is very sick.

    REPS love their welfare (none / 0) (#2)
    by lilybart on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 11:22:47 AM EST
    they just don't see it as such. Pass draconian laws so that taxpayers can fund jails so people in small towns can have jobs.

    THAT is small town welfare. And worse, we punish citizens for victimless crimes to give others jobs.

    Reps and the Dems unfortunatly (none / 0) (#4)
    by Rojas on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 12:21:55 PM EST
    This is one theme from the 90s in which the parties were leapfroging one another to get further to the right.

    Use these funds for rehabing prisoners. (none / 0) (#3)
    by lilybart on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 11:24:38 AM EST
    Lots of real jobs would be created by making sure that prisons could change the lives of the inmates. Teachers, counselors, PE instructors etc....

    et al (none / 0) (#5)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 01:24:23 PM EST
    Hmmm 1 out of 137 is about .35%

    With a population of 300,000,000 that is about 1,000,000 in jail... at $20,000 each that is about $20,000,000,000 per year.

    But the numbers don't add up. The post shows 2,300,000 that would be around .75%, more than double the 1 in 137 number..

    Either way, it is a costly proposition. The question becomes, is the sentences too harsh?? You can argue that the sentences for many first time non-violent offenders should be greatly reduced, but will you agree that second time offenders get slammed and violent offenders out away for a long time??

    And given that white collar crime is mostly non-violent, will you agree that people stealing millions get the same treatment as a bank teller stealing a few thousand?

    And isn't the real problem drugs?? Addiction on one side driving crime for money to pay for illegal drugs while supplying drugs drives crimes associated with the distribution??

    It costs Iowans about $65 per prison inmate-day (none / 0) (#7)
    by JSN on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 03:03:10 PM EST
    but it costs a lot more in California because their starting pay for corrections officers is about the top of the Iowa pay scale and about 85% of the cost of operating a prison is payroll.  My guess is that $25,000 per inmate-year is closer to the national average than $20,000.

    The Bureau of Justice Statistics gives the following correction populations for 2006.

    1. Probation 4.24 million
    2. State prisons 1.29 million
    3. Federal prisons 0.20 million
    4. All jails 0.76 million (based on a one-day snapshot)
    5. Parole 0.20 million

    The 2.3 million figure an estimate of the total number incarcerated is slightly larger than the 2006 estimate because the prison & jail population is continuing to increase.

    Using $65 per-inmate day the per capita cost of incarceration is $0.50 per day (in Iowa the per capita cost including federal prisoners is $0.37 per day).  On a per capita basis the daily cost is not that large but is it really necessary to spend at that  rate? Would we be better off if the average per capita rate were $0.37 per day?

    At $25,000 per inmate-year the total cost is $57.7 billion.


    prisons, like war is good business (none / 0) (#8)
    by white n az on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 08:35:40 PM EST
    I used to work for a lighting manufacturer that sold light fixtures for prisons and it represented perhaps 20% of their total sales.

    Specialized equipment and pricey to say the least.

    I'm waiting for a study (none / 0) (#9)
    by white n az on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 08:37:03 PM EST
    a study that lists how many are incarcerated for marijuana and how much a state might save by releasing these 'criminals'

    The specific drug is not always listed (none / 0) (#10)
    by JSN on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 10:38:47 PM EST
    in the list of person admitted to Iowa prisons (the only data I have access to). When a drug is listed marijuana is listed 20% of the time or 233 times for the particular data set I looked at.

    Having 233 persons in prison cost Iowans $15,145 per day or $5.5 million per year. If marijuana were made a prescription drug the number of marijuana prisoners would be reduced but not to zero because having a drug without a prescription is also a crime.


    Rojas is right (none / 0) (#11)
    by jusiperq on Sun Jan 27, 2008 at 11:26:38 PM EST
    And I mean this with all respect to Jeralyn, whom I quote quite often, and with apologies for going slightly off topic.  But to at least some of us who worry about prisoners and the administration of criminal justice, the 90's were pretty bleak. Is it your judgment that Hillary Clinton would take Democrats back to pre (Bill) Clinton on these issues?  Or is it, rather, that the battle for decency in the administration of prisons is just lost?

    The system (none / 0) (#12)
    by NaNaBear on Mon Jan 28, 2008 at 12:32:34 AM EST
    stayed the same under Clinton. Just as many if not more non- violent black/browns  were incarerated under the Clinton Admistration.
     In fact Hilary is against making the new crack/powder law retro-active. Maybe she has changed her mind.  The candidates address the prison issue, when they are talking to mostly black audiences. They give brief answers in debates.

    Some small steps will be taken(imo).  Dems are afraid of being called "soft on crime", while people are rotting way because of unfair laws.


    Well, count me as sympathetic to the plight of (none / 0) (#13)
    by Daniel Millstone on Mon Jan 28, 2008 at 06:59:43 AM EST
    upstate communities faced with possible prison closing. For decades, development plans for northern and western New York State communities have amounted to prisons and state hospitals. During a dozen years of GOP Gov. Pataki, no serious efforts were made to slow the economic downturn upstate. While closing unneeded prisons is an excellent idea, NYS will need to soften the blow and will, as a result, not be able to reap cash savings from the closings for some time to come.

    Over incarceration has been a nutty NYS policy since Rockefeller was Governor, and prison siting has been a political boondoggle everywhere -- but cold turkey is not good detox policy and it's not good development policy.

    All NY State needs to do..... (none / 0) (#14)
    by kdog on Mon Jan 28, 2008 at 09:10:32 AM EST
    is cut the high state corporate taxes so business will come back to upstate NY.  

    It's like a vicous cycle....we have high state taxes to pay for the prisons to provide the jobs because the businesses left because of the high taxes.  


    The bottom is dropping out of the well (none / 0) (#15)
    by SeeEmDee on Mon Jan 28, 2008 at 10:14:55 AM EST
    The financial well, that is.

    The National Debt is ballooning because of the costs of the wars. Inflation and devaluation of the currency is happening because the Fed is printing more 'money' with nothing to back it but what amounts to more near-worthless IOU's. The cost of energy is rising with no foreseeable end in sight. China is our main creditor, responsible for propping up our government with loans...and has her own plans for regional hegemony (see Taiwan, for starters, and what it's been doing in Central Asia with the 'Stans) that are at odds with US strategic plans. The writing's on the wall in red ink so thick you'd think it was paint. We just can't afford the Incarceration State any more. We can't afford to treat nuisances like drug usage as if they were major crimes worthy of expending billions of dollars on.

    I do indeed feel for those municipalities and counties who addicted themselves to the DrugWar money teat, but the fact of the matter is the party's over, the bill is due, and our pockets are nearly empty. It's War on Terror abroad or War on Drugs at home, one or the other. Something's got to give...