Thursday, December 14, 2006

Big prisons in small towns

Just a little more follow-up regarding yesterday’s post on big prisons in small towns. Calvin Beale, a demographer, documents the growth of prisons in rural areas here from an NY Times article from August 1:

“In the last decade, 245 prisons sprouted in 212 of the nation's 2,290 rural counties, many in Great Plains towns of Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas that had been stripped of family farms and upended by the collapse of the 1980's oil boom, said Calvin L. Beale, senior demographer at the Economic Research Service of the Agriculture Department.Mr. Beale said an average of 25 new rural prisons opened each year in the 1990's, up from 16 in the 1980's and 4 in the 1970's. Growth followed. In the 212 prison counties, the population rose 12 percent in the 90's, far more than rate of 1.5 percent in the preceding decade. Three small Oklahoma cities with new prisons — Hinton, Sayre and Watonga — grew more than 40 percent.”

And there is little question that Main Street (in this case Sayre, OK) wants the prisons:

“As in many other small towns around the country, a three-year-old, $37 million,
1,440-inmate, 270-employee, all-male prison is responsible for lifting
Sayre's spirits and reigniting its economy."In my mind there's no more
recession-proof form of economic development," said Jack McKennon, 52, the city
manager who persuaded the Corrections Corporation of America to put its prison
in Sayre. ‘Nothing's going to stop crime.’”
However, there has been little empirical research on the viability of using prison sitings as an economic recovery tool. This prompted a Sentencing Project study here on the economics of this choice, examining 25 years of economic data for rural counties in New York, covering both (1) counties in which prisons were built and (2) those without any facilities.

The authors find that prisons create new jobs, but not necessarily for local residents, who may not be in a position to be hired for these jobs. Key findings include:

  • Unemployment rates moved in the same direction for both groups of counties and were consistent with the overall employment rates for the state as a whole.
  • Counties that hosted new prisons received no economic advantage as measured by per capita income.

Later the report notes that prison proponents contend that rural prisons will produce a multiplier effect (in theory, each dollar travels through the economy as it is spent and received, and the effect is the portion of the original dollar that remains in the local economy, as compared to the portion that “leaks” out to other areas.)In theory, a prison becoming embedded in the local economy becomes a development lynchpin. However, government or private prison jobs run a poor second to agriculture for its ability to produce a local multiplier effect.

The Sentencing Project report concludes:

“Results of this analysis of prison siting in rural counties in New York State since 1982 indicate that reliance upon a prison as a means of economic development is short sighted and not providing any long-term growth. The siting of a prison did not significantly influence either unemployment or per capita income. Moreover, once a town hosts a prison and becomes known as a “prison town,” discussion of other means of economic development is likely to evaporate.”

In short, while I'm not sure this single study can be regarded as in any way definitive, maybe we need another rural economic development plan.

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