Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Prisons as Economic Development: Boom or Bust for Rural Georgia?

In Georgia today there are more prisoners than farmers. And while most prisoners in Georgia are from urban communities, most prisons are now in rural areas with high levels of poverty & a unskilled, uneducated workforce. During the last two decades, the large-scale use of incarceration to solve social problems has combined with the fall-out of globalization to produce an ominous trend: prisons have become a "growth industry" in rural Georgia, in fact Rural America.

Communities in isolated regions of the state began suffering from declines in farming, mining, timber-work and manufacturing are now begging for prisons to be built in their backyards. The economic restructuring that began in the troubled decade of the 1980s has had dramatic social and economic consequences for rural communities and small towns. Together the farm crises, factory closings, corporate downsizing, shift to service sector employment and the substitution of major regional and national chains for local, main-street businesses have triggered profound change in these areas.

The acquisition of prisons as a conscious economic development strategy for depressed rural communities and small towns in Georgia has become widespread. Many small rural towns have become dependent on an industry which itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditions.

Ironically, while rural areas pursue prisons as a growth strategy, whether this is a wise or effective strategy is far from clear. Increasing evidence suggests that by many measures prisons do not produce economic growth for local economies and can, over the long term, have detrimental effects on the social fabric and environment of rural communities. Moreover, this massive penetration of prisons into rural Georgia portends dramatic consequences for the entire state as huge numbers of inmates from urban areas of the state become rural residents for the purposes of Census-based formulas used to allocate government dollars and political representation.

Despite a lack of studies documenting the effects of prisons on rural areas and small towns over time, prisons are now heralded by economic development professionals and politicians of all stripes as beneficial economic engines for depressed rural economies like the one up in Baldwin County which was hyped by then governor Sonny Perdue, & State Senator Johnny Grant in 2010. Along with gambling casinos and huge animal confinement units for raising or processing hogs and poultry, prisons have become one of the three leading rural economic enterprises as Georgia and localities seek industries which provide large scale and quick opportunities.

The competition for prison "development projects" has become fierce and political. In order to be considered competitive in the bidding wars for public prisons, rural counties and small towns give up a lot to gain what they hope will be more: offering financial assistance and concessions such as donated land, upgraded sewer and water systems, housing subsidies, and, in the case of private prisons, property and other tax abatements.

A significant development in rural incarceration is the advent of private prisons. While private prisons do fill most jobs with new recruits when they open, and they sometimes give a hiring preference to local residents, they fail to provide a stable employment base in their host communities because they suffer extremely high rates of job turnover -- three times higher than the rate for public prisons. Correctional officer turnover rates in for-profit facilities are due mostly to poor training and low wages. This rapid turnover can create staffing problems that play out in understaffed shifts, low morale, and a sense of instability in the facility and the surrounding community.

While the growth in prisoner population and new prisons have increased dramatically, without other interventions such as changes in mandatory sentencing laws and parole policies, or more extensive use of alternatives to incarceration, prisoner populations and prison-building may climb upward again.

As well, the use of prisons as money-makers for struggling rural communities has become a major force driving criminal justice policy toward mass incarceration of the urban poor regardless of policy rationales like rising crime and prison overcrowding. In my opinion, When legislators cry 'Lock 'em up!,' they often mean 'Lock 'em up in my district!.'" LOL!! Indeed, the rural prison boom occurred at a time of falling crime rates and experience shows that the federal and state governments are reluctant to pull the plug on the many interests that now lobby for and feed off prisons. Allowed to continue, this cycle will have catastrophic consequences for the health and welfare of individuals, families, and communities in urban and rural areas, and indeed for the nation.

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