Cashing in on the Prison Boom

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."

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