Rural prisons give towns boost
1600 people, most between the ages of 18 and 22, pass their
days and nights amidst the campus' squat brick buildings, perched atop
the highest hill in a classic village in the rural Northeast. Steeples
and stone towers remind people in town and on campus who is in charge.
The town seems ambivalent to the campus' presence. "You
hardly even notice it," says one resident. Other residents seem to
resent the people at the institution. "They've never been responsible
for anything in their lives," says another. "It's the best college
they've ever had."
But what kind of college cuts educational programs at the
same time it builds a new barbed wire fence around campus? The kind with
such a reputation that it has no problem attracting hundreds of new faces
every year. That kind is also known as a prison.
According to Tracy Huling, the filmmaker and activist who
came to Bowdoin Monday to present her documentary "Yes, in my backyard,"
rural communities across the Northeast-and throughout the country-are
lobbying hard to get prisons built nearby. Like the liberal arts colleges
they sometimes mimic, rural prisons often radically change the aggregate
population of a town, bringing urbanites and people of color into a largely
white, sometimes suspicious community.
Unlike rural colleges, however, the prisons are seeing an
exceptional building boom-245 in the last decade alone-and politicians
are increasingly using them as an economic development tool to bring back
steady jobs to towns that are still suffering the sting of farm consolidation,
flight of manufacturing jobs to developing nations and Wal-Mart-style
decimation of Main Street.
The film, a 1998 documentary from Galloping Girls Productions,
is the first look at why prison construction is booming while violent
crime is plunging. Huling contends that the political debate about building
new prisons centers around rural economic development "rather than
why we needed to lock all these people up."
A former state government lobbyist in Albany, New York,
Huling began investigating the literature on emerging rural prison economies
in the mid-1990s. "I called up the Department of Justice in Washington,"
she says, "and I asked them to send me studies on prisons being used
as rural economic development tools. They told me there was nothing-not
a single report-and that if I found something, could I please send them
The documentary begins in the revitalized shopping district
of an upstate New York farm town, where a jolly old man, bearded and wearing
a red felt suit, exchanges high fives with local kids who have come to
ring in the Christmas shopping season. The idea, in the opening sequence
of the film, is that the town, Coxsackie, New York, will be celebrating
a brighter Christmas this year, thanks to the expansion of Greene Correctional
Facility, up the hill from Main Street.
The documentary examines the reactions of several locals
to the two prisons. After hearing from neighbors, wardens and other employees
and local politicians, one gets the sense that only the politicians realize
the scope of the impact the prisons have on their economy and way of life.
Few residents recognize how dependent their way of life is on the draconian
drug laws that keep their prisons expanding.
Most everyone in the town-prison employees and other citizens
alike-refer to the prisoners in extra-human terms. Their identity is a
collective one, broken down to the individual level only to count "beds,"
or "population." Only one resident on the video, a Corrections
Officer, characterized the inmates as "pretty much regular guys who
just screwed up once or twice." Most echoed the thoughts of a retired
CO: "those are the bad boys and that's why they're there. Crime is
a big industry and it's too bad it's got to be that way."
At the lower security institution, most of the prisoners
are black, says the warden, about a third Hispanic and less than ten percent
white. Most come from the inner city and few have family or friends in
"This massive incarceration policy for your nonviolent
drug user or small time dealer," he says, "does no useful things."
Huling would add one or two useful functions, however: keeping politicians
in office for appearing "tough on crime" and aiding small town
economies by expanding prison populations just enough to excuse the wide
distribution of small prisons across the landscape of rural America.
The documentary's points are as subtle as the misty rolling
hills of the Hudson River valley. Indeed, were it not for the appealing
small town characters of Coxsackie-across the river from Kinderhook, New
York-the hour and a half film would seem to drag, for the narrative thread
wears thin at several points.
While Huling suggests, in the documentary, that small town economic development is the impetus for the boom in rural prison construction over the last twenty years, she doesn't explain why she thinks it is a more significant factor driving prison growth than the call to get "tough on crime" through harsh drug laws. Indeed, these new prisons are not sitting empty.
There is a very clear reason they are filling up and it
seems to be attacking the root of the problem-sending small time drug
offenders to prison rather than giving the treatment they need, so they
don't re-offend, would attack both recidivism and the problem of rural
economic dependence on recidivism.
Huling's economic focus does give her an interesting perspective
on the issue. Indeed, in her remarks after the video, she made a surprising
comparison, saying the job ghettos in the inner cities limit the potential
of their residents in the same way depressed rural areas restrict ambitions.
The problem is, of course, multifaceted and so is the solution.
Huling's research provides a good starting point for attacking the emerging
prison-industrial complex in rural America. Coupled with a renewed effort
to fight drug abuse through treatment and community-based solutions, her
suggestions might just pay off for the downtown ghetto-and the upstate
The lecture and screening was sponsored by both the Africana Studies and Womens Studies departments.