Prison payrolls come with big hooks

 

I live in Salida: downstream from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility and its associated boot camp, and upstream from Canon City, home of Colorado's major prison complex, and Florence, which now boasts a federal penitentiary, "the Alcatraz of the Rockies."

And so I've noticed, firsthand and in my backyard, that most discussions of prisons ignore the most important thing about prisons: their effects on towns that house them.

What sorts of communities do prisons create? Most obviously, felons have families, who often move near the prison. Some of these families are hard-working, law-abiding citizens, the kind of people we'd be glad to attract.

But others, with the breadwinner in the slammer, will be on welfare. Or crime may be their way of life, giving us more assaults, burglaries and car thefts.

Balance these costs against the increased income from the prison payroll and you get a more honest balance sheet. And if you look closely at that coveted, stable prison payroll, you learn even more. I've asked friends within the corrections systems if there's a "desired psychological profile" for guards. They assure me there isn't - at least on paper, where anybody might see it.

But a moment's thought produces the ideal prison guard: someone who fully respects authority and works well in a hierarchy. Someone who functions well in an institutional environment, like a model prisoner, except guards spend only eight hours a day behind the walls.

Now put several hundred of these folks in a little town, and you've got a herd of conformists who believe in forcing other folks to see things their way.

Further, these guards are like every other group of bureaucrats. They support candidates who promise stricter laws, more enforcement personnel, and longer sentences since that guarantees their jobs.

It's a prison-industrial complex, like the military-industrial complex President Dwight D. Eisenhower unsuccessfully warned us against. Today, it's difficult to conjure up a credible threat from Moscow. So corporations contribute funds to fear-mongering politicians who persuade us to bankrupt our grandchildren to build prisons.

But in fact, the crime rate has been dropping for at least a dozen years, and further, most of the new inmates aren't violent. They are merely unlicensed pharmaceutical sales agents whose transactions interfere with a monopoly that the government has granted to physicians, Fortune 500 drug companies, and other campaign contributors.

At any rate, there is a pernicious social and political influence when your town gets a prison. Even if you're a bleeding-heart knee-jerk liberal, you end up cheering for the gulag. The more prisoners, the more local employment, which means more demand for your house, a greater rate of return on your biggest investment. Who says crime doesn't pay?

The impact goes beyond dollars. As anyone who has lived in a one-industry town knows, kids tend to grow up assuming they will go into the mine or mill after graduation. If a prison dominates the town, the kids assume that, by one route or another, they will end up in prison.

The atmosphere also affects us adults. I get depressed when I walk past a prison-work detail raking leaves in a Salida park. There's an overseer with a double-barreled shotgun handy. He's usually white. In his charge are prisoners in green overalls. Mostly they're black.

It makes you think of slavery, of chain gangs, of apartheid, of sordid things you'd prefer not to associate with America.

Federal officials put pressure on state prison systems to increase minority hiring to soften the blackness and whiteness that dominate our prisons. But hiring is only part of the equation. Employees must live within an hour's commute of the prisons, which are often deep in peckerwood territory, where a black prison employee is going to feel about as welcome as a black escaped convict. So the guard is apt to quit.

He doesn't quit because of cross-burning or anything like overt discrimination. The simple fact is that if I were sent to live in an area where nearly everybody looked different, and my children were a curiosity at school, and I had trouble finding a restaurant that served food I liked, and I couldn't get music I enjoyed on the radio - I'd start looking for other work in other towns, too, no matter how friendly my neighbors were.

And so this turnover problem is understandable.

The state is going to have to solve it, or lose some federal dollars, and after that, a lawsuit or two. The issue will remain until rural prison towns become more comfortable places for minority prison employees: not just for guards, but for cooks, psychologists, counselors, teachers, plumbers, and mechanics.

If prison towns are to keep their payrolls, they will have good ethnic restaurants, from potent chili verde to shirt-stainer rib joints. The local goat-roper radio station will also have to offer some jazz and twelve-bar blues. There will be real night life, as opposed to saloon brawls, and the local movie will have to present something besides Disney and Schwarzenegger.

In short, rural prison towns will have to become cosmopolitan; the dread specter of multi-culturalism will invade the heartland.

This probably isn't what the local good ol' boys had in mind when they lobbied the legislature for their share and more of the penitentiary pork. The irony is fitting.

Ed Quillen lives in Salida, Colorado, and writes columns for The Denver Post.

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