As America's modern prison-industrial complex took shape in the second half of the 20th century, once-bustling manufacturing hubs—steel mills, coal mines, and industrial plants—were shuttering across the country. The Heartland was increasingly known as the Rust Belt, and it was only a matter of time before some down-and-out communities began seeking economic revival in the nation's most enduring industry: cages and the Bad People living in them.
In 2001, the New York Times reported that an average of 25 rural prisons had opened each year in the 1990s—a stunning jump from four a year in the 1970s. In the previous decade alone, 245 prisons moved into rural America as towns, thirsty for relief, began begging private corporations to build in their backyard. "In my mind there's no more recession-proof form of economic development," one city manager told the paper. "Nothing's going to stop crime."
Now a potpourri of factors have led all levels of government to reexamine their roles in mass incarceration: the Great Recession, which forced many states to downsize their incarcerated populations; a serious conversation regarding reform from the (Obama) White House down; and, perhaps to that manager's chagrin, stunningly low crime rates. Because contrary to the dark portrait of America that Donald Trump conjured up—and successfully ran on—the country is as safe as it's ever been, and for prisons, that's bad for business.
Nationwide, some citizens of "prison towns" are watching with bated breath. So legislators must balance any downsizing with the economic anxieties of working-class people dependent on steel cages for their livelihoods. But do prisons actually help local economies? Answering that question could go a long way toward digging America out of its mass-incarceration hole.
Among critics, that latter question is still very much up for debate—in fact, the criminal justice site and frequent VICE partner Marshall Project recently listed six reasons why this argument isn't particularly sound. And at least half of them have to do with local employment.
"Many of the individuals working in many prison counties don't actually live in the community—they commute in," Nicole Porter, a policy analyst at the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group, told me. "And so one of the selling points was that it would help support the local labor pool. That just isn't what [played] out, in many cases." Not to mention the fact that these positions are often union-affiliated, meaning they're internal transfers, and not necessarily creating "new" jobs.
"In many ways, the prison industry can be looked at like the coal industry, or the timber industry, or the manufacturing industry. When it goes bust, communities have to reinvent themselves."—Tracy Huling
A rural area's remoteness, Porter added, "brings up further challenges with people willing to work there, and move to the area to adequately staff it." A prison guard position isn't always ripe for these areas either: The job itself is grueling, and unions usually seek younger recruits, while rural communities' demographics tend to skew older.
In response to that, Porter told me, a local service economy offering food and lodging to commuting correctional officers, or visiting relatives, usually arises. But the question is, does this bring the highest economic potential to said area? Or can more be done?
"In many ways, the prison industry can be looked at like the coal industry, or the timber industry, or the manufacturing industry," Tracy Huling told me. "When it goes bust, communities have to reinvent themselves."
For the greater part of her career, Huling has documented that reinvention, both in her home state of New York and nationwide. Through her initiatives, like Yes, in My Backyard and the Prison Public Memory Project, she examines the ties prisons have with surrounding communities, and how they can be preserved—or, at least, not disrupted—as times change. Like the Hudson Correctional Facility, a prison that first opened in 1887 and attracted a large number of African Americans from the South as one of the first interracial employers in the region to offer both stable state wages and a pension.
"You had African American families, whose situation was that they were poor when they came, middle class as a result of working at the facility," she explained. "And then they raised their children and created institutions—the churches, the cultural clubs—with prison money."
In the coming years, Hudson Correctional Facility, which now only detains juveniles, may well close. With its declining population, it has been touted by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has shut down 13 state facilities so far in his tenure—the most of any governor in state history—as a prison transitioning to an eventual end. And it is towns like Hudson that, critics of Cuomo say, are most vulnerable.
"Even though prison jobs are not lost and they move to other areas when a prison is closed," State Senator Betty Little, who has ten prisons in her district upstate, said in January, "it leaves a big impact on communities."
According to James Miller, the spokesperson for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, which represents current and former COs, prisons are often the "largest employer" in a region. "If those officers get transferred and have to potentially move, it would obviously impact the town economically," he told VICE. "Keep in mind that not only the correction officers, but many civilians work in positions at the prisons as well."
If 430 jobs were lost in these towns due to prison closures, what's to say that more than 430 jobs can't be added back into the economy through non-correctional means?
Miller's employer was perhaps the most vocal critic of Cuomo's closure plan some years ago, arguing that, for example, the end of correctional facilities at Mt. McGregor and Chateaugay in upstate New York would cost a combined 430 jobs to the local economy. But what needs to be figured out is how that job loss can be offset by gain. Or, in other words: If 430 jobs were lost in these towns due to prison closures, what's to say that more than 430 jobs can't be added back into the economy through non-correctional means?
Take Hudson, for example. Although home to an aging prison, it is now a center of the cultural tourism craze that has engulfed this region. As urban prices have ballooned, many have looked to the Hudson Valley for more affordable spaces and attractions, including the arts and local farming. Add Beacon and Warwick to this category of former "prison towns" that are now booming.
On the other hand, a prison town in the Adirondacks—which was once called New York's "Siberia" for its grim landscape of prisons—might find it harder to attract business due to its distance from urban areas (that may explain why the state has made a recent push to ramp up tourism to the region). That being said, each town, Huling explained, has its own formula for reinvention; the tricky part is teasing out what that is.
"Upstate is a different economy and culture, and that's true in rural areas across the country," she said. "You're not just reinventing an economy; you're reinventing a culture."
"How you do that," she continued, "requires multiple kinds of strategies."
Watch Kingsley Rowe talk about his journey from incarceration on murder charges to being a professional criminal justice reformer.
Basically, when a prison moves out, you need a plan.
"It should be the responsibility of the state," Huling told me, "to help the community come up with a plan to support an economic development conversation around reusing the prison and repurposing that land for non-correctional purposes."
Since Governor Cuomo declared, "An incarceration program is not an employment program," in January 2011, his office has offered incentives, like state-funded projects and tax breaks worth millions to soon-to-be-former prison towns. To avoid layoffs, correctional officers were transferred or offered early retirement. And although sales were tough at first, plans for old prisons have finally emerged.
The Warwick prison will soon be multi-use, perhaps even a spa or resort one day, Hauling told me, and the Bronx's old Fulton prison has already reopened as a reentry center for former inmates. Another defunct juvenile prison, in Tryon, New York, will become a tech incubator. And that correctional facility at Mt. McGregor will soon be turned into parkland, for tourism purposes.
"Prisons are really small cities into themselves," Huling explained. "They have their own sewer systems, electric, plumbing. They have enormous amounts of infrastructure, which if captured, you can do quite a lot with."
A prison in Tennessee will soon reopen as a whiskey distillery and camping ground. The privately owned Dawson State Jail, outside of Dallas, is already being eyed for development by the city. And older, more historic prisons—like Huntsville in Texas, and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia—are now popular museums for visitors. The same might happen soon at New York's Sing Sing.
Prison closures offer another chance to tie together urban and rural communities in a way that could be beneficial for everyone involved.
"The options are endless," Huling added. She pointed to a grant-funded program in North Michigan, which helped 230 displaced prison workers find a job after their facility closed this past September.
One might argue it was government's failure to provide initiatives like these to laid-off workers in the early aughts that helped power Donald Trump in the presidential election, with anxiety about jobs, trade, and immigration all factoring into a rural American revolt. But advocates say prison closures offer a chance to benefit wide swaths of the public.
"We think economics 101 tell you that when people are working productively, that's when they help the economy," Brenden Beck, a volunteer organizer with Milk Not Jails, told me. "Not just when they're just guarding other people."
Milk Not Jails has a few missions. Staffed by formerly incarcerated individuals, the group delivers New York milk throughout the state. It also advocates for criminal justice reform in the halls of Albany, and a sustainable agricultural future for communities long attached to the incarceration industry.
Beck used Chobani as an example. The Greek yogurt company based its headquarters in Norwich, New York, he said, bringing jobs and production to the community there. "The reason Chobani relocated was not because there were a lot of prisons there," he argued, "but because there are a lot of dairy farmers there."
Now, he said, his job is to convince the farmer who has told him, "My neighbor works for the prison," that a future without prisons may not only be imminent, but bright, too.
"We want to rebuild these rural communities, but it's just not gonna be with prison jobs," he told me. "When these jobs go away, the next step is very simple, and hopefully we'll do it better than last time."
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This article is part of the VICE series The Future of Incarceration. Check out the rest of the package here.