Monday, January 04, 2016

Rural towns seeking ways to turn shuttered prisons into economic opportunities

Many rural towns that have come to rely on a prison to support the local economy are struggling to stay relevant as more rural prisons are shuttered. New York—where 15 facilities have closed since 2011—is trying to turn closed prisons into new ventures that, if successful, could serve as a model to help other rural communities struggling with losing their biggest cash cow, Henry Gass reports for The Christian Science Monitor. (Gass photo: The former prison in Warwick, N.Y., is now a sports complex.)

"Thirty years ago, attracting a prison seemed like one of the soundest financial decisions that a rural community, in particular, could make," Gass writes. "Thanks to tough-on-crime policies, a prison-building boom was under way. Rural areas could offer large but secluded property in exchange for the kind of large, stable employer that such communities often struggle to attract. The number of state prison facilities rose from 600 in the mid-1970s to more than 1,000 by 2000, according to a 2004 report from the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington. By the 1990s, 25 prisons were being built in rural areas every year, up from four a year during the '70s. As prisons rose up in small communities, they soon became the only game in town, akin to single-industry 'company towns.'

"But then, for a variety of reasons, including concerns about mass incarceration, the tough-on-crime approach began to lose some steam," Gass writes. "America's prison population has started to plateau. Between 1999 and 2013, the state and federal prison population decreased 2.4 percent, according to The Sentencing Project. Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told Gass, "Prisons have become a major part of the local economies in these small towns. So if [a] state is going to close some institutions, it should be thinking of some transitional support for the towns."

The closing of New York's facilities has led to annual savings of about $162 million, which has been reinvested in an economic development program, Gass writes. While some areas have been successful—Warwick's prison was turned into a sports complex—"other rural areas have proved a tough sell. At least a third of the 15 shuttered facilities—including the four closed in 2014—have yet to be sold." Most of the success has occurred in urban areas, "where demand for the properties is often much higher." (Read more)

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