Race, Place, and the Perils of Prisonomics:
Beyond the big-stick, low-road, and zero-sum mass incarceration con

By Paul Street
Z Magazine, July/August 2005

It's the silences that speak the loudest in dominant media's coverage of current events. Consider, for example, a Detroit News story that appeared in mid July 2001 under the curious title "Ionia Finds Stability in Prisons." This article told the enlightening tale of how the semi-rural Michigan town of Ionia, located halfway between Lansing and Grand Rapids, had recently become one of the state's fastest growing and "most improved" communities thanks to its five thriving penitentiaries together employing 1,584 workers who collectively made $102 million a year. "The state's urban centers dump their felons," the Detroit News reported, "in prison towns and forget about them. Suburbs balk at housing felons, envisioning escapees trampling through their gardens and hiding out in their tool sheds." But "Ionia," the paper noted, "sees things from the other end of the spectrum. The prisons bring, of all things, security." According to Detroit News reporter Francis Donnelly, Ionia's "penitentiaries, five veritable Great Lakes of cash, provide sustenance to every sector of [Ionia's] once-dry economy: jobs for residents, customers for stores, revenue for the city government," including "nearly $1.2 million of the city's $3.8 million budget."

A bigger, nationally focused story on the same topic appeared two weeks later on page one of the New York Times, under the title "Rural Towns Turn to Prisons to Re-ignite Their Economies." By Times reporter Peter Kilborn's account, "prisons have been helping to revive large stretches of rural America. More than a Wal-Mart or a meatpacking plant, state, federal, and private prisons, typically housing 1,000 inmates and providing 300 jobs, can put a town on solid economic footing. As communities become more and more familiar with the benefits that prisons bring, they are also becoming increasingly adept at maximizing their windfall through collecting taxes and healthy public service fees."

Kilborn quoted the city manager of Sayre, Oklahoma, which had just opened a prized new maximum-security lockdown. "There's no more recession-proof form of economic development," this local official told Kilborn, than incarceration because "nothing's going to stop crime." Thanks to money brought in through taxes on prisoners' telephone calls, sales taxes paid by prisoners and prison staff, and to water, sewer, and landfill fees, Kilborn added, Sayre's city budget increased from $755,000 in 1996 to $1,250,000 in 2001, permitting the town to set aside 15 percent of its revenues for capital improvements. No such savings or investments were possible before prison construction began, when Sayre "was surviving largely on federal crop support payments to its dwindling farm population" in the wake of the collapse of the state's oil and gas industry during the 1980s.

The extent of some rural communities' sense of dependence on the prison industry was poignantly suggested in a Chicago Tribune article that appeared six months later, when then-Illinois Governor George Ryan closed his state's rural Vienna Correctional Center. A page one Tribune story on resulting local union protests noted, "At a time when other industry in Illinois' southern end is weak, Vienna and other prisons dotting the [state's] farm fields are considered a force as much for economic development as for public safety." As southern Illinois coal mines closed during the 1970s, the paper observed, workers in that region turned to the Vienna and later the Shawnee correctional facilities for jobs.

According to the Tribune: "When their children graduated from high school, parents encouraged them to start a career in what appeared to be a dependable industry. 'That was the only thing going on when I was coming up, that and the mines and the rock quarries,' said Larry Flynn, who went to work at Vienna in 1985. 'It ain't bad work and there are good benefits, if you can handle the stress.' The pay is good too. A correctional officer can make about $40,000 a year, not bad in a place where new homes sell for less than $100,000."

"Over time," the Tribune added, "the local economy has grown up around the prison like a vine."

Each of these newspaper articles did an excellent job telling an important story about a striking and relevant contemporary issue. In a land partly founded on an agrarian ideal, prisoners actually outnumber farmers. Most of the United States' "correctional" facilities are found in rural areas. Two and a half decades of globally unparalleled prison expansion has combined with the rural economic fallout of corporate globalization in the U.S. to turn the mass confinement of mostly urban "offenders" into a leading, often desperately pursued "growth industry" for non-metropolitan jurisdictions that have become less able to make good livings in farming, logging, mining, and manufacturing.

During the 1990s, 245 prisons were built in 212 of the nation's 2,290 rural counties. As Tracy Huling has noted, "The acquisition of prisons as a conscious economic development strategy for depressed rural communities and small towns in the United States has become widespread. Along with gambling casinos and huge animal confinement units for raising or processing hogs and poultry," Huling reports, "prisons have become one of the three leading rural economic enterprises as states and localities seek industries that provide large-scale and quick opportunities."

Caucasian Country Keepers

By the time each of the newspaper articles quoted above were written, the most striking aspect of the U.S. correctional boom, beyond its sheer magnitude--the U.S. emerged as the world's leading incarceration state by far during the 1990s--was its heavily racialized nature. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of black men in jail or prison grew fivefold, to the point where, as the Justice Policy Institute reported in 2002, there were actually more black men behind bars than enrolled in colleges or universities in the United States. On any given day, U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Director Jan Chaiken reported in 2000, 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 were under correctional supervision--either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. The nation's disproportionately urban black populace comprised 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, but blacks made up nearly half of the roughly 2 million Americans behind bars by the turn of the millennium. The incarceration rate for African Americans was 1,815 per 100,000 compared to 609 per 100,000 for Latino Americans, 99 for Asian Americans, and 235 for white America. For black adult males the incarceration rate was a remarkable 4,484 per 100,000, compared to 1,668 per 100,000 for Latino males and 1,318 for white males. Reflecting astonishing racial disparities in the waging of America's domestic "War on Drugs," roughly one in ten of the world's prisoners was an African-American male by the turn of the millennium.

In 15 percent black Illinois, 64 percent of the state's prisoners were African Americans. The state's incarceration rate for blacks was 1,550, compared to 127 for whites, per 100,000. There were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois prison system than the number of black males enrolled in the state's public universities. Reflecting the strong correlation between blackness and urban residence in a still highly segregated state and nation, 70 percent of the state's prisoners came from the Chicago metropolitan area, home to 83 percent of the state's African Americans.

The color of Illinois' non-metropolitan "downstate" prison keepers was an entirely different matter. Eighteen of the twenty adult correctional facilities constructed between 1980 and 2000 in Illinois were located in rural counties that are disproportionately white for the state. Just four of the state's twenty new (post-1980) prison towns had black municipal populations above the state average, and in three of these cases this was only because the census authorities count prisoners as residents of the towns in which they are involuntarily warehoused, not their communities of pre-incarceration residence.

Things were much the same in other states where the nation's disproportionately urban black population supplies most of the correctional sector's raw material. In New York, prison and census researchers Peter Wagner and Rose Heyer note, three-fourths of the state's prisoners come from the New York City metropolitan area; 80 percent of the state's inmates are black or Latino and 91 percent are kept in predominantly white "upstate" sections of New York. Those sections host all of the 38 New York state prisons constructed between 1982 and 2000.

The U.S. is dotted with a large number of non-metropolitan jurisdictions that are much more officially black than they appear in their commercial and residential districts. New York is home to 11 rural counties where black prisoners make up 64 percent or more of the total black population. Across the nation, Wagner and Heyer find, there were 173 counties with more than half of their black populations behind bars in 2000. One such jurisdiction is Ionia County in Michigan, officially home to 2,867 black Americans, all but 165 of whom were warehoused in Ionia prison.

A Massive Transfer of Value

According to criminologist Todd Clear, the "economic relocation of resources" from black to white communities that results from racial disparities and related spatial patterns in mass incarceration are considerable. "Each prisoner represents an economic asset that has been removed from that community and placed elsewhere.... The removal may represent a loss of economic value to the home community, but it is a boon to the prison community." By Clear's estimation in the late 1990s, "Each prisoner represents as much as $25,000 in income for the community in which the prison is located, not to mention the value of constructing the prison facility in the first place. This can be a massive transfer of value: A young male worth a few thousand dollars of support to children and local purchases is transformed into a $25,000 financial asset to a rural prison community. The economy of the rural community is artificially amplified, the local city economy artificially deflated."

Generally quite poor, prisoners deflate the income profiles of downstate communities, making prison towns eligible for extra poverty-directed public dollars. The prisoners do not benefit, however, from the rural roads, schools, and bridges built with public funds tied to prison development. At the same time, prisoners put relatively minimal strain on local infrastructure beyond occasional trips to court and the use of prison shower and toilet facilities. They do not benefit from the enhanced political power that prisons bring to rural jurisdictions. Politically disenfranchised prisoners (inmates can vote in only two U.S. states, both in predominantly white New England) count towards the representation of the electoral districts in which they are incarcerated, not the districts from which they came and to which most of them return.

The third thing missing from the journalistic accounts quoted at the beginning of this article is the terrible effect of racially disparate mass incarceration on the labor market experience and related economic and life chances of the disproportionately black inmates who provide the critical raw material for the nation's prison boom. The story of mass incarceration's role in transferring wealth out of urban and black communities is incomplete without factoring in the significant negative impact felony records and prison histories have on future earnings and employment for those who serve as captive developmental resources for rural prison towns. If the U.S. prison construction boom creates some measure of economic stability and security--just how much is a matter of increasing skepticism and debate (as we shall see below)--for non-metropolitan communities, it exacerbates economic chaos and instability for the disadvantaged and segregated inner-city communities that provide so disproportionately large a portion of the correctional complex's "raw material."

According to one social-scientific survey of more than 3,000 employers nationwide, more than 60 percent of employers would not knowingly hire an ex-offender. By comparison, 92 percent of employers would likely hire a current or former welfare recipient and 83 percent would hire someone who had been unemployed for a year. Reflecting this employer bias and a host of related barriers, the best social science research finds that incarceration carries a 10 to 20 percent "wage penalty." Ex-prisoners on average experience no real wage increases in their 20s and 30s, when young men who have never been incarcerated tend to experience rapid wage-growth. Prison time serves to channel individuals away from skilled occupations and into job sectors characterized by low wages, limited job stability, and fewer opportunities for advancement. It significantly disrupts the career-building process as ex-offenders are left to "start back at square one," in sociologist Devah Pager's words, "with respect to gaining a foothold in a particular occupation."

Since incarceration rates are especially high among those with the least power in the labor market--young and unskilled minority, particularly African American, men--mass U.S. imprisonment and felony marking tends to exacerbates racial inequality. Thanks to its racially disparate labor market and related (under-) developmental consequences, the prison industrial complex has become a significant form of racially regressive and highly regulatory state intervention in the U.S. labor market and economy. Sociologists Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett find that "the penal system has a pervasive influence on the life chances of disadvantaged minorities. "Although typically the preserve of criminology," Western observes, "incarceration appears to shape aspects of inequality that are of traditional interest to stratification researchers. It seems likely that status attainment, school-to-work transitions, and family structure are all influenced, perhaps even routinely, by the penal system in the current period of high incarceration. From this perspective, the usual list of institutional influences on social stratification--schools, families, and social policy--should be expanded to consider the coercive redistribution of life chances through incarceration."

It doesn't help, of course, that inmate education and rehabilitation have been systematically de-legitimized and de-funded at the same time that the U.S. has built and operated a record number of new prisons in a spirit of what leading national prisoner "reentry" expert Jeremy Travis calls "robust retributivism."

Limits of Prison-Based Rural Growth

The fourth silence has to do with the limits of prison-based economic development in the rural U.S. As a number of investigators begin to critically and systematically investigate the impact of prisons on rural economies, we are discovering that mass incarceration's "boon" and "windfall" for non-metropolitan areas may be much less impressive than advertised. Thanks to state and union seniority rules, professional certification requirements, and fierce competition for livable wage jobs in depressed rural areas, Huling and other researchers report, many rural correctional positions do not go to people living in prison-hosting towns. According to a 1998 dissertation study of a prison-hosting county in Missouri, 68 percent of the jurisdiction's correctional jobs were filled by people living outside the county. Similar patterns have been found in California and Washington state. At the same time, as Ryan S. King, Huling, and Marc Mauer have recently noted, "Prison construction jobs impose a variety of requirements that local applicants may not meet," including the possession of job-specific skills and correctional guard union membership. "In the high-stakes competition between towns to host a prison," these writers add, "negotiators for the locality are often unwilling to impose any demands on the state, such as a local hiring quota."

How powerful is the local "multiplier effect" of a rural prison? Purchasing most of their supplies from distant corporations that enjoy cost-cutting economies of scale that are not available to most local rural businesses, prisons "generate few linkages" to local and regional prison-hosting economies and "fail to attract significant numbers of associated industries." By Huling's analysis, a prison is no substitute for, say an automobile plant, which "might spark the development of delivery companies, radio assemblers, and electronic harness makers." Since newly built prisons tend to attract large-scale national chain stores like McDonalds and Wal-Mart, moreover, they tend to encourage the demise of locally controlled enterprises and the loss of locally generated revenues to distant corporate coffers. To make matters worse, prisons often tend "to discourage other industries from locating in [a] town that might, for all other purposes, be perfectly suitable." The perception that prisons are often seen as "undesirable neighbors"--the reasons include fear of escapes, concerns over prisons' environmental practices (dumping), and the persistent societal stigma that still accompanies incarceration--tends "to ensure that a prison community will never be anything else, economically speaking."

It doesn't help that prison work is often dangerous and stressful, contributing to elevated rates of substance abuse, divorce, domestic violence, suicide, and health problems. Kilborn's Times article contained an interesting observation in this regard: "Residents initial concern for their safety," Kilborn noted, "has subsided. No prisoner has escaped. But about 20 guards, residents of Sayre and surrounding communities, have been injured in fights and assaults. As many as 70 percent of all guards quit within a year...and the prison is now 19 guards short."

Also meriting attention, captive prisoners sometimes displace lesser skilled free workers in local "public service" and "community development" tasks. By Kilborn's account of Sayre, Oklahoma, "the city has torn down the old high school and salvaged the bricks and stone for a new City Hall. The bricks," Kilborn noted, "stand in stacks in the prison yard where for no charge to the city, the inmates are cleaning them." In a similar vein, Donnelly's Detroit News piece on Ionia reported, "It's not uncommon to come across an inmate in his prison blues pruning bushes at police headquarters or, during the winter, shoveling snow for seniors." Prior to 1990, Donnelly noted, "The city never used inmates to work on city projects." But "now, they're all over the place--cleaning, weeding, trimming, fixing, painting, planting, sweeping, raking, or mowing," sometimes even performing tasks reserved for skilled tradesmen. In their rush to press with the arresting story that prisons were underpinning economic security in rural communities, neither Kilborn nor Donnelly thought to wonder if free (for the city, not the state taxpayer or the inmate-worker) prison labor was displacing and/or otherwise closing off employment opportunities for less skilled waged labor in Ionia, where 5 percent of the civilian labor force was officially unemployed in 1999, or Sayre, which had an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent.

Consistent with these reflections, King, Mauer, and Huling have determined that prison construction and operation have exercised no positive effect on local economic development in rural New York during the last two decades. Examining detailed economic data from 14 rural New York counties, they find "no significant difference or discernible pattern of economic trends between the seven rural counties that hosted [one or more] prison and seven counties that did not host prisons."

It is not true, finally, that mass incarceration lacks "boom and bust" rhythms. Prison construction and operation develops in uneven accord with policy and budget cycles, changing public fiscal capacities, and politicians' shifting commitment to incarceration as the "solution" to crime and drug abuse. As Kilborn noted at the end of his article, "The nation may be on the verge of a prison glut, bad news for towns that have come to rely on them. Only 11 prisons have opened or are scheduled to open this year, compared with 38 in 1998, the peak building year."

Non-Material Costs

Prison-hosting carries significant non-economic costs that deserve to be "factored-in" alongside material "dollars and cents" considerations. Beyond the often dangerous and stressful nature of correctional work, it seems likely that many people employed in prisons pay a certain spiritual price for relying for their daily bread on the dehumanizing imposition of mass incarceration. At the same time, the highly racialized nature of the U.S.'s increasingly bucolic "prison nation" certainly has a negative impact on the country's race relations. In the typical "downstate" Illinois or "upstate" New York (or Michigan) prison, the only black Americans that many of the predominantly white guards and other prison staff tend to have contact with are the angriest, most violent and dangerous products of the nation's urban ghettos. Along with the stress and negativity associated with the work of imposing repressive, explicitly "retributivist" state punishment on those mostly male and very disparately poor black Americans, this selective exposure to the black community certainly tends to reinforce and expand racist sentiments in rural white America. Meanwhile, captive nonwhite prisoners chafe, their bitterness and alienation often growing under the constant oppressive eyes, batons, mace-cans, electronic tasers, cameras, and guns of their Caucasian overseers. The U.S. prison system's rejection of its initially rehabilitative mission only deepens the disaffection of currently and formerly incarcerated "offenders." This is a formula for the exacerbation of racial hatred. It is very different from placing blacks and whites alongside each other in situations requiring roughly equal interdependence, as for example in the deep coal mines that used to be more common in southern Illinois and much of the South.

To make matters worse, anti-black racism is useful for many white prison staff and communities who might be uncomfortable about their economic dependence on other human beings' bondage in "the land of freedom." By degrading inmates' humanity, racist sentiments can make that potentially painful contradiction seem less glaring for whites who work (in however subordinate a fashion) in the prison industrial complex. In the modern mass incarceration setting, as in other contexts past and present, anti-black racism grants lower and working-class whites what W.E.B. DuBois called a "public and psychological wage"--a false and dysfunctional measure of status and privilege that was used "to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships." White workers in the U.S. have long tended, as David Roediger has noted, to "define and accept their [subordinate] class position by fashioning identities as 'not slaves' and 'not blacks.'" Today we might add, "and not prisoners."

Whatever the precise socioeconomic and related social-psychological dynamics at work, it's hardly surprising to learn that white-supremacist values and affiliations are relatively widespread among those entrusted with the control of the nation's mostly nonwhite prisoners.

Getting What You Want

Given the significant limits of the rural prison "boon," why are so many non-metropolitan communities eager to get a new prison or, alternately, upset at the prospect of losing an existing local "correctional" facility? Part of the answer is found in the development-promising sales pitches made by correctional officials and by "law and order" politicians looking to boost their election profiles (and their electoral head counts) by bringing large-scale public works projects (which just happen in the case of prisons to rely on securing a regular supply of captive human beings) to their jurisdictions. Leading capitalist enterprises and unions that benefit from prison construction and maintenance certainly invest in developmental prison-building propaganda.

Another part of the explanation is found in University of Iowa economist Thomas Pogue's observation that rural "prisons are being located where people don't have much of a choice." As Sayre's mayor told Kilborn, sending mixed messages on the real extent of the prison "windfall," "The prison is a super-positive for us. But it's a life raft, an inner-tube. We're still on the ocean. We're not going down, but we're not really going up either." In the nation's disproportionately impoverished rural areas, as well as in its disadvantaged urban ghettoes, an inferior development path is preferable to no path at all. Like many ordinary poor and modest-income people and communities in the U.S. living under the rule of exceptionally top-heavy, management-intensive, inequitable, and low-wage corporate political economy, rural prison towns probably do not so much get what they want as want what they get. "Beggars can't be choosers" under the "zero-sum" rules of an ever-more regressive, wealth-concentrating, and poverty-generating capitalism that had made the U.S. the most unequal nation in the industrialized world.

The interesting and potentially progressive thing here is that people and communities on both sides of the spatially and racially loaded mass incarceration coin need very similar social and political changes. Both groups require and deserve decent, good-paying, and soul-nourishing jobs, the reconstruction and expansion of basic social-contractual safety nets, and significant public investments in things like public education, job-training, substance abuse treatment, universal health insurance, child care, and public transportation--to mention just some of the unmet program needs. They both need the U.S. to shift from a low-road to a high-road of balanced, high-wage, and worker- (instead of management and supervision-) centered development. They both need the U.S. to shift public resources from regressive, repressive, and well-funded (in the U.S.) "right hand of the state" to the more egalitarian, social, democratic, and less well-funded "left hand" of the state. They both need and deserve a greater share of the nation's wealth, which tends to concentrate in the nation's affluent white metropolitan suburbs and upscale urban neighborhoods. They both need and deserve a greater say in local, regional, and national socioeconomic planning and management and in the allotment of globalization's costs and benefits. They both need and deserve meaningful development choices beyond the confines of an authoritarian, racist, zero-sum political economy that has generated the most unequal distribution of wealth in the industrialized world and given rise to an intimately related, dangerously proto-fascistic and racist "prison nation."

Alongside the encouraging fact that most people in the U.S. actually oppose the vicious circle of racially disparate mass incarceration and that there are few policy mysteries on how to break that circle, these and other commonalities of interest between the prison-fed and the prison-feeding communities provide some basis for optimism regarding the prospects for rolling back racially disparate mass incarceration in the U.S.

Paul Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm Publishers, 2004); Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (the Chicago Urban League, 2005); and Segregated Schools: Class, Race, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (forthcoming from Routledge).



Stay Informed


Get the latest updates:



Tweet this page Donate Now hiring: Policy Fellow, Research Associate, & more


Events

Not near you?
Invite us to your city, college or organization.