Thursday, June 16, 2016

Rural prisons rarely provide expected economic gains, The Marshall Project reports, citing data

Poor rural towns banking on a new prison to boost the local economy could be fooling themselves, Tom Meagher and Christie Thompson report for The Marshall Project, which calls itself "a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system."

One of the main draws of a prison is the prospect of new jobs. But most of those jobs go to employees already in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons system, not locals. For example, 300 people will be employed at a prison scheduled to be built in coal-dependent Letcher County in southeastern Kentucky—one of the nation's poorest regions—but the Environmental Protection Agency said most, if not all the positions, will be filled by employees already in the system.

Also, those employees often don't move to the community, so "there's little gain in home ownership, voter registration, tax base or other civic investment," Meagher and Thompson write. Construction jobs also rarely go to locals, unless they already have the necessary skills or union connections. A 2003 study by the Sentencing Project of prisons in New York found that "local governments, desperate to secure a new prison that could go to another county, will often forego requirements that a certain number of jobs be set aside for their constituents." (Sentencing Project graphic)
A 2010 study published in Social Science Quarterly that examined how prisons impacted employment in every county in the lower 48 states "found that in rural counties, particularly those whose residents have lower levels of education, 'new prisons may be doing ‘more harm than good’ in vulnerable counties,'" Meagher and Thompson write. Researchers "found that after 1990, there was no link between prisons and a growth in employment. Moreover, for counties with lower rates of educational attainment, prisons were inversely related to employment growth." Prisoners also are cheap labor, doing jobs for cheaper wages than locals would make, said the study.

Prisons also have been known to deter new businesses, who don't want to open near a prison, Meagher and Thompson write. "Thomas G. Johnson, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri and an agricultural economist who has studied the American rural economies for decades, has seen that prisons rarely spark the wave of related business development their proponents wish for." He told the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, "Manufacturing plants always are more advantageous to the community than the prisons. The prisons generate very few linkages to the economy." (Read more)

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