Numbers Alone Won’t Shrink Prisons

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In July, the Bureau of Justice Statistics published a new report that shows incarceration rates in the United States have declined for the third year in a row. In a Wonkblog column, Mike Konczal expressed optimism that these statistics, combined with the effects of the recession, could mean a long-term reduction in state prisons. But it’s unlikely that America’s overgrown prison system is going away anytime soon.

Prisons are particularly intractable institutions. They are not simply places where society punishes people; they have also been seen as drivers of economic development. Konczal predicts that correctional officers’ unions and private prisons may soon be promoting penal Keynesianism—the theory that an expanding prison sector promotes jobs and economic stability.

But penal Keynesianism has been with us for a long time, touted by state and federal officials who supported the prison-building boom that began in the 1980s. The consequences of that boom remain with us today, particularly in rural communities where prisons have been heralded as a source of economic revitalization. The logic of penal Keynesianism has linked the fates of a range of constituencies to an ever-expanding prison infrastructure. Shrinking the prison system will require reframing conversations with those individuals to help them think beyond the numbers.

Here’s the basic argument of penal Keynesianism: allow a prison to come to your small, declining town, and you’ll get a stable employer paying good wages to a large labor pool. Local people will be offered jobs, and prison employees who are new residents will buy houses in town. The effects of prison spending will spill over to the community and local businesses, creating a net positive for your town.

However, in a number of towns and rural areas, residents have found that prisons rarely deliver on these economic goals. Most corrections officers will not be from the community and will choose to live an hour’s drive away from the prison, and most of the companies the prison contracts with will not be local businesses. While there can be some economic gains from having a prison in town, those gains are marginal at best for most residents (a number of book-length studies, including Golden Gulag and The Big House in a Small Town, speak to these issues).

And that’s when the prisons actually open at all. Since the prison construction boom went bust in the early 2000s, prison expansion has been put on hold. Some states have had to hold off on construction, some new facilities have sat unopened, and in some places, the federal government has had to purchase excess prisons built by the states.

In Thomson, Illinois, a state prison was completed in 2001 but sat virtually vacant for years. While the Thomson Correctional Center was recently sold to the federal government, it remains empty, and local residents continue to wait for the economic benefits that state and federal officials have been marketing to them over a decade.

Area residents are quite measured in their opinions about the potential impact of the prison. As one county resident told me, “We’re so desperate for jobs. We say, yeah, yeah but they’ll buy gas and cigarettes…but if and when it ever opens, it will be such a disappointment…. It will not solve any of our problems.” Another Thomson resident said, “By the time they get it open, we’ll probably be in a nursing home.” Weighing just as heavily on local residents as the empty prison itself is the infrastructure that was built to support the influx of inmates and new residents; a new wastewater treatment facility, for example, has caused acute financial difficulties in Thomson.

What’s more, if increased numbers of prisons do in fact close or remain unused, many communities will be facing difficult architectural challenges: how can prison structures be creatively reused for other purposes that benefit the area? Federal and state officials must be involved in helping communities find ways to effectively transform these facilities.

A focus on penal Keynesianism overlooks the inherent uncertainty of the benefits a prison may eventually have for a rural community. The broader social costs of incarcerating so many people in a setting that is punitive and not rehabilitative are also ignored. By selling prison-building projects based on the projected number of jobs created and positive spillover effects, federal and state government officials have turned countless communities into stakeholders in a prison system predicated on an assumption of permanent expansion. The true cost of prisons, though, cannot be reduced to an economic formula.

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