Rural Dependence on Mass Incarceration

Prison population reduction has started making inroads in mainstream public policy, most notably with the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, currently under consideration in Congress. How to resolve mass incarceration has been a source of partisan debate, but prison reform has become a bipartisan concern.

Between 1980 and 2009, prison population at the state level alone increased 475 percent, while spending increased 400 percent. These increased costs have galvanized fiscal conservatives into the camp of prison reformers and others alarmed by the rising prison population. Even though reform has become politically attractive for both Democrats and Republicans, a retreat from mass incarceration faces opposition from the network of beneficiaries of the system

With 2.8 percent of adults in American under correctional supervision, the economy of incarceration is considerable. Private, for-profit prisons have been becoming more significant in recent decades. They are now responsible for 6 percent of state and 16 percent of federal prisoners.

The two largest prison corporations together earn $3.3 billion in average annual revenue. Recognizing that such profits depend on high rates of incarceration, prison corporations have spent nearly $25 million on lobbying since 1989.

But, lest we get caught up in a discussion of the implications of such lobbying (after all, for-profit prisons lobbying to keep more Americans locked up must surely raise eyebrows), consider that the prison economy is not simply a corporate issue.

Let’s examine New York State, where prison unions have helped prevent the authorization of private prisons.  The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) oversees approximately 53,000 incarcerated individuals in 54 facilities with an additional 36,000 men and women on parole.

The state has been working to reduce prison populations, and in the last decade has closed 13 facilities. DOCCS claims to have saved New York $162 million annually by doing so. These closings, however, have provoked an outcry across rural New York. As the economy in those regions collapsed in the 1980s, prison construction emerged as an economic solution.

DOCCS employs nearly 29,000 New Yorkers. Reflecting the importance of prisons for rural communities, correctional facilities are often located in the middle of or directly beside small towns.

The dependence of these communities on rates of incarceration is problematic. In a speech in 2011, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo asserted, “An incarceration program is not an employment program.” Unfortunately, in New York State and across the country, it long has been. Oneida County, for example, benefits from three facilities, and has a facility that produces food for all New York State prisons. A fourth, Oneida Correctional Facility, closed in 2011.

The closure was a major source of local concern. An online petition to keep the prison open insisted, “Oneida Correctional needs to remain open in order to provide ecomonic [sic] stability in an area that is already in economic jeopardy,” explaining that the prison was one of the few remaining major employers in the area. Thus, even in a state without private prison corporations, interest in maintaining high levels of incarceration is considerable.

But as Gov. Cuomo pointed out in the same 2011 speech, “Don’t put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs….That’s not what this state is all about, and that has to end.”

Reducing mass incarceration carries economic consequences for local communities; yet neither the state nor the federal government can continue to accept mass incarceration as solution for their failure to effectively invest in rural economies. We should not discuss mass incarceration as simply a problem to be balanced with economic concerns.

One of the very issues of 30 years of prison expansion is that it has distracted state governments from legitimate and sustainable investment in rural economies. As New York State continues to close correctional facilities and to reduce inmate population, rural communities will continue to cry foul for losing a valuable economic engine.

We need to remember that while the economic stakes for these towns may be significant, the stakes are incalculably higher for those that are incarcerated, for their families and their communities. These incarcerated men and women are not responsible for curing the economic woes of rural New York. The state bears responsibility for its failure to better invest in the cities whose populations fill the prisons and in the rural towns that operate them.

The setbacks for towns affected by closing prisons and reducing inmate populations are not the problem. There are two independent problems—mass incarceration and a thirty-year rural economic slump. The state must recognize its mistake in ever linking them, and tackle them each in earnest.