Thursday, January 31, 2008

Rural towns in northern New York wonder what will happen if four of six area prisons close

Rural Franklin County, New York, is home to five state prisons and one federal prison, which have sparked the local economy for decades. Not all the state prisons are full, so Gov. Eliot Spitzer has planned to shut down four to cut costs — a plan that has the area's rural residents worried about the future, reports Fernando Santos of The New York Times (NYT graphic).

The county's situation is not unique — we recently mentioned a similar one in Iowa — because many rural counties have come to depend on prisons for jobs. "As rural economies across the country crumbled in the 1980s and the population of prison inmates swelled, largely because of tougher drug laws, states pushed prison construction as an economic escape route of sorts," Santos notes. "Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, an average of four prisons were built each year in rural America; the rate quadrupled in the 1980s and reached 24 a year in the 1990s, according to the federal Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service."

The prisons brought jobs, but they also kept towns from pursuing other economic-development opportunities. None of the workers at the closing prisons will be laid off, but it is uncertain where they would have to transfer in order to stay on the state payroll. The prisons and their inmates provide valuable services — including helping to build the ice palace that is the centerpiece of the local Winter Carnival — and boost the county's population when it comes to state and federal aid. (Read more)

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