Since the Conservatives began their punishment agenda, a few municipalities from across the country have been lining-up to become the next pencity. In economically depressed communities where citizens are deserting their homes such as Pontiac County, Québec (read CBC News, 30 October 2007; see also Boivin, 2007) and in towns like Valemount, British Columbia (watch Valemount Community TV, Episode 28 - 30 April 2010 and Episode 29 - 7 May 2010) in pursuit of a better life, the prospect of having a federal penitentiary in one's backyard is being sold by proponents as a path to economic salvation and community survival.
I do not fault concerned citizens from communities such as these who have experienced economic hardship and related social problems, often as a result of neo-liberal policies which led to local declines in industrial production, for seeking ways to sustain themselves. However, communities which seek to become profiteers of human misery by playing host to warehouses where we incarcerate prisoners need to be aware of a growing body of literature in the United States which examines the impacts of new prisons on their host communities.
THE NEED TO MOVE BEYOND COMMON SENSE
For years, critical scholars have been studying prison expansion in the United States in a time of declining 'crime' rates (see Dyer, 2000). The contribution of these studies is to show how in times of economic turmoil, elected officials often turn to the construction of new prisons as a form of penal patronage to generate political capital - a.k.a. electoral support (Christie, 2000). Presented with such 'opportunities', localities once opposed to prisons in their backyards now welcome and even lobby for these facilities in order to read the stated benefits associated with such projects (Greene, 2007).
While critiquing the role of capital interests and economic motives as a means to undermine the legitimacy of the American prison boom serves a powerful denunciatory purpose, descriptively it falls short. The problem with critical scholarship which posits that prison construction provides opportunities for economic development is that it retains most of the assumptions shared by proponents of imprisonment as an approach to economic development (see Stanley, 1978; Travis and Sheridan, 1983, 1986; Hawes, 1985; Abrams and Lyons, 1987; Houk, 1987; Rogers and Haimes, 1987; Caillier and Versteeg, 1988; Carlson, 1990, 1992; Krause, 1992; Sechrest, 1992, Schichor, 1992). In my view, earlier work in both bodies of literature did not conduct adequate research to verify whether such projects actually contribute to the long-term economic renewal and growth of host communities. To address this gap in knowledge, a number of major studies have been undertaken, yielding surprising results.
IMPACTS OF NEW PRISONS ON PENCITIES
When a prison arrives in a community it is presumed that locals will be first in line to work within the facility (see Che, 2005; Gilmore, 2007; Gotham and Haubert, 2007). However, the reality is that “[t]he majority of public prison jobs… do not go to people already living in the community” as they do not possess the necessary education levels and experience (Huling, 2002: 201). In a tight labour market, local residents are also in stiff competition with others from neighbouring communities for whatever jobs are unclaimed by existing prison staff in state and federal systems who have seniority (ibid). Construction jobs are also mostly taken by those living outside the host community who are employed by contracting firms (Mosher et al., 2007: 94). Locals are thus left with lower skilled and lower paying jobs, negating “a net increase in employment” (Hooks et al., 2004: 42).
If anything, the employment crunch is heightened in new prison towns due to the use of prison labour for local infrastructure and landscaping projects, deepening poverty (Huling, 2002: 204). This is made visible by the finding that overall earnings, per capita income and employment growth in both urban and rural counties in the United States with established or new prisons stagnated, while surprisingly, commensurable counties without prisons enjoy higher rates of growth in each of these categories between 1969 and 1994 (Hooks et al., 2004; Mosher et al., 2007).
Another promise associated with the arrival of new prisons is that such projects will have a spill-over effect for local businesses that are thought to be best positioned to provide goods and services to these institutions along with their employees, resulting in increased tax revenues for local authorities. However, local businesses rarely have the capacity to fill the larger and specialized orders of prisons (Hooks et al., 2004: 42). Coupled with the arrival of mega-chains who also presume growth will ensue as a result of new prisons, local businesses who reinvest capital into their localities tend to disappear, as the Walmart’s and McDonald’s of the world come to take their place and invest profits made locally elsewhere (Huling, 2002: 202).
In the lead-up to a new prison, residential housing developers often begin construction on homes and apartment buildings, expecting locals to be able to afford better housing and for prison workers to move to these areas. However, as most prison jobs are not distributed locally and more often than not prison “workers are more likely to live in neighboring communities (up to fifty miles away) that offer more amenities but have no prison” (Mosher et al., 2007: 95), the short-term land and rental increases give way to a reduction in land values and the maintenance of higher rent levels, impacting poorer members of communities (Huling, 2002: 203). While proponents of new prisons point to the population growth associated with such projects, it is not new workers who contribute to the phenomenon, but rather the arrival of prisoners “that are reversing long-standing trends of population loss in rural counties” (ibid: 210; see also Hunter and Wagner, 2007).
Municipal Services and Infrastructure
Municipal services and infrastructure are also negatively impacted economic revitalization campaigns in which new prisons are the centrepiece. By diverting infrastructure dollars towards making a community prison ready – offering tax breaks, providing land and other services to prison authorities to outbid their opponents – local governments are often left with little to offer to attract other prospective employers to the area (Mosher et al., 2007: 94). This phenomenon is described by Hooks et al. (2004: 54) as the “opportunity costs” associated with building new prisons in one’s community. As a result, “local officials in towns with one prison often opt or are forced to lobby for more prisons, creating a “one-company town” scenario over time” (Huling, 2002: 206). In many jurisdictions, the penal system is also adversely impacted as local police and judiciary divert significant resources to deal with ‘crimes’ within prisons (ibid: 204).
Quality of Life
New prisons are largely sold on the idea that they generate significant economic benefits to jurisdictions where they are located, ultimately improving the quality of living in these areas. However, there is plenty of evidence that the opposite occurs due to high job turnover and low workforce morale (Huling, 2002). For instance, in Ionia, Michigan – a county home to many prisons – “there’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence of increased rates of divorce, alcoholism and substance abuse, suicide, health problems, family violence, and other crimes” (ibid: 207). This flies in the face of the feel good stories sold to residents regarding the impact of prisons on communities.
IMPACTS OF THE ESTABLISHMENT OF RURAL PRISONS
ON THOSE LEFT BEHIND
In addition to studies that highlight the limits of local economic development through prison construction, there is a growing body of literature which focuses on the collateral consequences – “intended or unintended” (Mauer and Chesney-Lind, 2002: 1) – of mass incarceration as a policy response to ‘crime’. While often not the specific focus of studies on the collateral consequences of imprisonment, many of the findings produced make visible the adverse impacts of the forced migration of prisoners to isolated prisons on the communities where they are from, their families and their loved ones.
The impacts of imprisonment on families are wide ranging (Braman, 2002). Beyond the stigma, social isolation, economic stresses and emotional troubles experienced by those with a loved one in prisons (see Mauer, 1999; Braman, 2002; Richie, 2002), prison location serves as an additional barrier to men, women and children wishing to maintain contact.
In the United States, most facilities are located in rural areas, often at great distances from the communities where prisoners are from (Richie, 2002). The facilities are often not accessible by public transportation, offer limited visiting hours and long wait times, “making visiting logistically and economically difficult if not impossible” (ibid: 139). Institutional regulations which on occasion prohibit the entry of visitors and procedures such as cavity searches, add to the undesirability of prison visits (Braman, 2002: 120). These indignities often lead families and loved ones to limit or abandon institutional visitation altogether. For instance, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency “found that over half the women inmates had never received a visit from their children since their admission to prison. The most common reason for this was the distance from the children’s home to the prison, more than 100 miles on average” (Mauer, 1999: 186).
While a small number of prison authorities and community groups have developed teleconferencing programs to connect children with parents behind bars in rural institutions (see Bernstein, 2003), for the vast majority of family members and loved ones wishing to maintain contact with prisoners, expensive collect phone calls (Jackson, 2007) and correspondence through mail remain the only options (Braman, 2002: 120). On occasion, maintaining contact is further complicated when prisoners are moved unannounced to them to another facility, a practice commonly known as “diesel therapy” (Friedman, 2007: 269). As a result, it often takes months for prisoners to reconnect with their support networks (Beck et al., 2008).
In the United States, the forced separation of the incarcerated from their families and loved ones disproportionately impacts low-income and minorities as they are more likely to find themselves entangled in the web of the penal system (Mauer, 1999: 183). While some families do overcome these challenges, they represent “the exception rather than the rule” (Clear, 2002: 193). As a result, “marriage and coparenting are far less common and single-headed households are far more common in areas where incarceration rates are high” (Braman, 2002: 126-127). Moreover, when prisoners – most being men – are forcibly removed from their communities, “gender ratios are skewed” in ways that encourage the remaining men to “enter into relationships with multiple women, and encouraging women to enter into relationships with men who are already attached” (ibid: 123). By altering relationship norms amongst all those impacted, potential for family disruption, violence and ‘crime’ is increased (Mauer, 1999: 184).
The restructuring of families and other kin networks in the manners described above through imprisonment has a pronounced impact on some communities. Clear (2002: 181) notes that penal policy operates under the assumption that the removal of “people from their communities subtracts only (or primarily) the problems they represented for their places, and thereby leaves those places better”. Put in other words, it is assumed that those in conflict with the law do not make any positive contributions to their communities. Clear argues that such a viewpoint is not only unsupported by scholarly evidence, but that in there increasing support for the argument that communities with high rates of incarceration are more susceptible to ‘crime’ due to the impacts of incarceration and prisoner re-entry into the community on apparatuses of informal social control (ibid: 183). These informal institutions, including families and other social networks, set normative standards for conduct and provide mechanisms outside the State to address the range of problems present in communities. Clear concludes that when individuals are imprisoned on mass it “has a destabilizing effect on community life, so that the most basic underpinnings of informal social control are damaged. This, in turn, reproduces the very dynamics that sustain crime” (ibid: 193).
THE NEED FOR AN ALTERNATIVE
Based on the experience of the United States, we know that increasing our reliance on imprisonment does not enhance public safety in the long-term. There is also evidence to suggest that building a prison in one's backyard is not a viable economic renewal strategy and causes a great deal of damage to prison towns and communities where prisoners are from. And what do we do with this evidence? It appears as though we are veering towards a path where we are bound to repeat the very worst examples of economic and penal policy that have failed south of the border.
The fact that communities in Canada are turning to imprisonment as a way to address 'crime', while other towns and cities are turning to imprisonment to address local economic crises should be cause for concern. The establishment of new buildings made of brick and mortar as an approach to resolving complex issues in our communities should be seen as nothing more than a sign that we need to get creative, to reinvigorate debate and generate new ideas that will propell our country into future prosperity rather than the cynical darkness of a penal state which incarcerates an increasing number of prisoners for longer periods of time without benefit.
Many jurisdictions in the United States are now abandonning their punishment agendas because they have come to the realization that they deserve better.
We too, in Canada, deserve better.
It is time to challenge ourselves and our representatives to deliver viable approaches to addressing the economic, political and social issues we are facing to build a country where freedom, not the ball-and-chain, reigns.
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