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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...