Poor, rural places are magnets for prisons

  • Chart of rural prisons opened by year

    Economic Research Service, USDA

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Colorado's prison slayer.

New prisons aren't getting built at the scene of the crime.

A 1991 federal survey found that 390 prisons were located in rural and small-town settings, housing 44 percent of all state and federal prisoners. More than 200 of those prisons have been built since 1980. But the crimes the prisoners committed occurred mostly in cities.

"Why would you want to build a prison in the city if you can have a 300-acre farm with room for expansion and a large perimeter for easy control of the prison border?" asks Calvin Beale, a demographer with the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

But the attraction of rural areas as prison settings is more than physical. Urban areas generally don't want new prisons, says Beale, while job-starved rural communities do. Counties with declining agricultural and industrial bases often see prisons as their salvation and actively pursue them, offering land, water, tax breaks and other incentives as lures. Political resistance to prisons in rural areas is spotty at best, he says.

Beale tells of a trip he took a few years ago to a rural New Mexico community which had just won a contract to build a prison. The local paper "made it sound like they had just signed up a high-tech company. And here it is a warehouse for criminals," says Beale. "The whole issue is couched in economic terms."

Beale says that some rural communities have second thoughts when the economic benefits don't live up to expectations. Sparsely populated Crowley County, Colo., on the plains east of Pueblo, thought the medium-security prison it attracted in 1987 would bolster its sagging agricultural economy. But Beale says interviews he conducted in 1992 found otherwise.

Most of the state employees sent to operate the facility lived in Pueblo and other more urban areas. The prison also created an overload on the county's sewage system, he says, and it flooded the court system with cases involving prisoners, he says.

But a comprehensive survey of seven prisons (three in Florida, two in Arizona, and one each in Idaho and Tennessee) conducted by the Florida International University in 1987 disputes the notion that prisons hurt rural communities. The study found that prisons have no negative effect on property value, public safety or the quality of life, and that the positive economic effects significantly enhance community well-being.

Whether or not you like prisons, they seem likely to be a permanent and ever-growing fixture in rural America, says Beale. As the baby-boomers' kids enter the crime-prone years of 18-25, the number of inmates is bound to increase, he says, and rural prisons will be built to house them.

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