Politicians Are Portraying 'Gitmo North' as a Terrific Local Jobs Program -- Don't Count On It
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But do new prisons really provide such an economic gift to the communities that host them? The evidence is mixed.
Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, scoffs at the claim that Thomson will bring an economic surge to the region. "Three thousand jobs is ridiculous," he told AlterNet. "A two-thousand bed prison typically will employ around five hundred to seven hundred people." There are "the spin-off jobs -- people employed by
diners, Walmarts, etc.," but in both cases, "often the locals don't get the jobs because they are not qualified." This will certainly apply to Thomson -- unless we are meant to believe that "the most secure maximum security prison in our country of all time" (in the words of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn) will hire a large swath of the local unemployed. "Prisons do require employees and these will be federal employees with decent salaries and benefits," Wright says. But "building prisons as an economic development tool has been mixed."
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, who has researched the economic effects of prisons on small towns, says that economic promises made by local politicians often sound better than they actually are. "In recent years many small-town local leaders have pushed for new prison construction as a form of economic development and job creation," he told AlterNet. "In practice, such projects are not very successful in stimulating local economies, for several reasons.
"First, jobs at the prison do not necessarily go to locals, who in many cases may not have the proper qualifications. Instead, prison staff often commute from large distances. In turn, this means they are not buying houses near the prison, nor spending much food or recreation money in the local town since they are just commuting back and forth to work. Likewise, provision of food services and other supplies often is contracted from providers at a great distance from the town. Finally, establishing a locality as a 'prison town' may detract from efforts to attract other forms of economic development or tourism, thus minimizing any long-term economic benefits."
On that last point, it's hard to imagine that Thomson, whose slim Wikipedia profile boasts the claim to fame "Melon Capital of the World," won't be swallowed whole by the facility many have already dubbed "Gitmo North." It is already defined by the empty supermax prison -- and it sits a short distance away from another notorious facility, "Blackwater USA North," the local training ground for the infamous mercenary force.
'Prison Boosters In Rural America Should Be Careful What They Wish For'
A number of reports released in the past few years years have cast serious doubts on the claims that prisons will automatically breathe new economic life into depressed regions. Nevertheless, the perception that prisons equal jobs remains firmly intact.
Part of this might be wishful thinking. For people outside these mostly rural areas, it's hard to conceive of just how deep-seated these beliefs can be. In an article titled "Don't Build it Here -- The Hype Versus the Reality of Prisons and Local Employment," sociologists Clayton Mosher, Gregory Hooks and Peter Wood wrote: "Belief in the positive economic impact of prisons is so strong that a town in Illinois composed a rap song and purchased television advertising as part of a public relations blitz for legislators deciding where to locate a prison. In Texas, students in a Sunday school class reportedly got on their knees and prayed that a new prison would open in their area."
In Tamms, Illinois, home to the brutal Tamms supermax prison, which holds its prisoners in solitary confinement nearly 24 hours a day, "a billboard for the local bank promised 'super-max-imum savings,' while a local restaurant offered the 'supermax burger' on its menu. A billboard outside Tamms displays the message 'Welcome to Tamms, the Home of the Supermax -- Thank You Governor Edgar.'"
Yet years after such prisons were constructed, there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence that they resulted in overwhelming economic benefits. (In the case of Thomson, the prison generated plenty of economic-stimulus buzz when it was first being constructed, only to sit, empty, when the state realized it could not afford to run it.)