Please Help My Backyard: Developing Solutions Beyond Prisons in Rural Communities

Kaid Ray-Tipton, MPA Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

“Thus, the prison industrial complex is much more than the sum of all the jails and prisons in this country” (2003: 107)

Incarceration is embedded in the social fabric of America. As the incarceration rate dramatically grew during the last three decades of the 20th century, state governments built prisons in rural areas across the United States. As a result of the prison build-up, many rural communities became dependent on incarceration to revive their economies. Since the end of the 20th century, the incarcerated population peaked and then started to decline, allowing state governments to close prisons. Meanwhile, many community organizations have continued to fight for the abolition of prisons. All stakeholders must be kept in mind during the closure of prisons. Rural areas need greater and more diverse economic opportunities to reduce their financial dependence on prison systems and to liberate themselves economically. 

In the U.S., there are currently 1,833 state prisons and 122 federal prisons. No singular story describes how these prisons were procured and positioned communities across the country. Each municipality has its own social, political, and economic drivers that shape why building a prison might benefit local residents. Although no singular story explains how prison sites are selected, this article will discuss why new prisons are often perceived as an economic lifeline for struggling rural areas. 

Devalued Land, How the Prison Arrives, and Where the Prison Goes 

Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues that natural disasters and “closure of manufacturing and other employment establishments can devastate rural economies that lack flexibility due to their tendency to be dominated by monopolies or oligopolies” (2007:64). Situations like these in the 1970s helped create environments where rural land was disinvested from, considered surplus, and devalued (2007:88). Devalued land in rural communities left a vacancy in capital gains, thus providing business owners with the choice of irrigating unprofitable land or taking acres out of agricultural production (2007:68). In search of promising economic generation, many rural communities turned to locally unwanted land uses (LULUs), such as prisons, because stakeholders promised increased employment that would revive rural communities. 

Aside from the community members and incarcerated people affected by the prison build, the stakeholders include either federal or state officials, as well as local politicians and community leaders (2017:14). The federal or state government officials manage the prison siting process. As John Eason explains, prison siting refers to federal or state government entities helping to select “a site on which to build a prison” (2017:14). While many variables affect why the federal or state government may choose a community for a prison, sometimes the government officials want to know if there is local opposition with NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) campaigns or local demand for the prison. As NIMBY is often the default for LULUs, local politicians and community leaders work to increase the demand for prisons; this is the prison placement process. Local leaders can demonstrate demand to officials managing the prison siting process by illustrating PIMBY (Please In My Backyard) attitudes. This can be done with “videos and letters of support from political and civic leaders advocating for their community to win the facility” (2017:88).

These processes have contributed to the building of many prisons in the final decades of the 20th century. Four new prisons were built in rural areas every year in the 1970s. In the 1990s, that number increased to 25 new prisons in rural areas each year. This prison build-up aided rural areas in implicitly developing a dependence on incarceration. For example, in 2006, Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky told his constituents of Whitesburg, KY, that he was lobbying for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to construct a new prison on a former coal mine property in their county. Rep. Rogers stated, “the prison business is essentially recession-proof,” produces low amounts of pollution, and keeps hundreds of well-paying jobs in the community. A 2015 report by the BOP states the prison would need 300 new employees. Yet, the report concludes that 300 current BOP employees would likely have relocated to the Whitesburg area—leaving Rep. Roger’s constituents with close to no new jobs.

There Is No Economic Salvation Through Incarceration

For residents that do obtain correctional positions, the starting annual salary can be as low as $33,394. As demonstrated in the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on Alabama’s prisons for men, low salaries in high-stress correctional jobs can contribute to increased corruption and violence. The facilities built in rural communities in previous decades created overcrowding and dangerous conditions that affect both incarcerated people and correctional staff today. In short, prisons are not making communities safer.

Many of the aforementioned reasons are why many communities have turned to the abolition of America’s carceral facilities. Rural communities were told that prisons would significantly improve their economic conditions, but “there is no economic salvation through incarceration.” While prisons are closing in rural areas and construction of new prisons has halted, 500,000 correctional staff across the country are disproportionately located in rural communities. The correctional staff that is residents of rural areas can lose their stable salary, health care, and pension. As some states have turned towards closing prisons down, there are limited examples of how to support correctional staff after the closures. 

Since 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has closed at least 24 carceral facilitiesDiscussions around the closures of the 24 facilities typically celebrate the number of tax dollars saved and ask how to repurpose the physical prison structures. Managing the displacement of correctional staff has been handled uniformly: “displaced workers will get opportunities to transfer to the state’s 60 remaining prison facilities based on seniority.” About 96 percent of the correctional staff of closed prisons continued “state service, retire[d], or pursue[d] other opportunities.” This high percentage could demonstrate how these employees are limited to working within this sector and have few options to change fields of work. In addition, when the correctional staff chooses to move from a rural prison town, they must often relocate their family members. When prisons close and families move, rural towns experience a decrease in the tax base, devaluing of land, and removal of a tourism economy present from visitors of the prison town.

Looking Beyond Prisons as the Solution

As prisons continue to close in rural regions, correctional staff will have fewer prisons for transfer. Ultimately, community members, abolitionists, and policymakers should engage in dialogue to find solutions to providing alternative economic means to the hundreds of thousands of correctional staff and community members in rural areas. Elected officials should not assume what will work best for rural communities; instead, they think critically with their constituencies regarding how to best serve the community. This departure from prisons as the one-size-fits-all economic solution can develop unique alternatives that may not apply to all rural communities because of the social, political, and economic variables.

For generations, prisons have promised economic value in rural areas that have been devalued. Community members, abolitionists, and policymakers are working to correct the fallacies of the past by halting prison construction and closing prisons down. Greater efforts are needed to ensure community members and correctional staff in rural areas can smoothly transition from dependence on prisons to a future that does not bear those structures. Creating new futures in rural communities is not effortless; it will take the work of many stakeholders to prevent economic reliance upon prisons.

Davis, Angela Y. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.

Gilmore, Ruth W. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eason, John M. 2017. Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prisons Proliferation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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