Reverse Reparations: Race, Place, and the Vicious Circle of Mass Incarceration*



Sometimes it’s the silences that speak the loudest. Consider, for example, a page-one article that appeared in the New York Times in the summer of 2001 under the title “Rural Towns Turn to Prisons to Re-ignite Their Economies.” According to this piece, non-metropolitan America was relying like never before on prison construction for jobs and economic development. Formerly, Times reporter Peter Kilborn noted, rural communities had depended for employment and economic development on agriculture, manufacturing, and/or mining.  Now, however, they were counting on mass incarceration to deliver the goods. Reporting that “245 prisons sprouted in 212 of the nation’s 2,290 rural counties” during the 1990s, Kilborn quoted the cheerful city manager of Sayre, Oklahoma, which had just opened a prized new maximum-security lockdown. “There’s no more recession-proof form of economic development,” this local official told Kilborn, than incarceration because “nothing’s going to stop crime.”


By Kilborn’s account, “prisons have been helping to revive large stretches of rural America.  More than a Wal-Mart or a meatpacking plant, state, federal, and private prisons, typically housing 1,000 inmates and providing 300 jobs, can put a town on solid economic footing.”  Thanks to money brought in through taxes on prisoners’ telephone calls, sales taxes paid by prisoners and prison staff, and to water, sewer, and landfill fees, Killborn added, Sayre’s city budget increased from $755,000 in 1996 to $1,250,000 in 2001, permitting the town to set aside 15 percent of its revenues for capital improvements. No such savings or investment were possible before the prison, when Sayre “was surviving largely on federal crop support payments to its dwindling farm population” in the wake of the collapse of the state’s oil and gas industry(1).


A different story on the same topic appeared under the title “Ionia Finds Stability in Prisons” in the Detroit News just 12 days before Kilborn’s piece. It told the enlightening tale of how the semi-rural Michigan town of Ionia,  located halfway between Lansing and Grand Rapids, had recently become one of the state’s fastest growing and “most improved” communities thanks its five thriving penitentiaries together employing 1,584 workers who collectively made $102 million a year. “The state’s urban centers dump their felons,” the Detroit News reported, “in prison towns and forget about them. Suburbs balk at housing felons, envisioning escapees trampling through their gardens and hiding out in their tool sheds.” But “Ionia,” the paper noted, “sees things from the other end of the spectrum. The prisons bring, of all things, security.” According to Detroit News reporter Francis Donnelly, Ionia’s “penitentiaries, five veritable Great Lakes of cash, provide sustenance to every sector of [Ionia’s] once-dry economy: jobs for residents, customers for stores, revenue for the city government,” including “nearly $1.2 million of the city’s $3.8 million budget” (2).


A February 2001 Chicago Tribune article titled “Towns Put Dreams in Prisons” told a comparable story from Illinois. In “downstate” Hoopeston, Illinois, the Tribune reported, there was “talk of the mothballed canneries that once made this a boom town and whether any of that bustling spirit might return if the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) comes to town.”  “You don’t like to think about incarceration,” Hoopeston’s mayor told the Tribune, “but this is an opportunity for Hoopeston.  We’ve been plagued by plant closings.” The mayor, the Tribune reported, was lobbying IDOC to permit his town to host a prison so that it could enjoy some of the economic benefits that came to Ina, Illinois when the “Big Muddy” prison was constructed in 1993.


Before “Big Muddy” went up, the Tribune noted, Ina “took in just $17,000 a year in motor fuel tax revenue.  Now the figure is more like $72,000.  Last year’s municipal budget appropriation was $380,000.  More than half of that money is prison revenue.  Streets that were paved in chipped gravel and oil for generations soon will all be covered in asphalt.  An $850,000 community center that doubles as a gym and computer lab for the school across the street is being paid for with prison money.”


Because much state and federal tax revenue is allocated on a per capita basis, the Tribune noted, “a prison population that puts no strains on village services is a permanent windfall for a little town such as Ina.”  “It really figures out this way,” Ina’s mayor Andy Hutchens told the Tribune: “this little town of 450 people is getting the tax money of a town of 2,700.”  “And those people in that prison,” Hutchens added, “can’t vote me out of office” (3). 


The extent of some “downstate” Illinois communities’ sense of dependence on the prison  “windfall” was clear in a Tribune article that appeared nearly a year later when then-Illinois Governor George Ryan announced the impending closure of the state’s rural Vienna Correctional Center. A page-one Tribune story on resulting local union protests, noted that “at a time when other industry in Illinois’ southern end is weak, Vienna and other prisons dotting the farm fields are considered a force as much for economic development as for public safety.” As coal mines closed during the 1970s, the paper observed, displaced southern Illinois workers turned to the Vienna and later the Shawnee correctional facilities for jobs.  Further: 


“When their children graduated from high school, parents encouraged them to start a career in what appeared to be a dependable industry.  ‘That was the only thing going on when I was coming up, that and the mines and the rock quarries,’ said Larry Flynn, who went to work at Vienna in 1985.  ‘It ain’t bad work and there are good benefits, if you can handle the stress.’  The pay is good too.  A correctional officer can make about $40,000 a year, not bad in a place where new homes sell for less than $100,000.”


“Over time,” the Tribune added, “the local economy has grown up around the prison like a vine” (4).


Each of these newspaper articles did an excellent job telling an important story about a striking and relevant contemporary issue. In a nation founded largely on agrarian-republican ideals, prisoners now outnumber farmers.  Filled primarily by inmates of urban origin, most of the United States’ “correctional” lockdowns are found in rural areas.  Two and a half decades of massive American prison construction has combined with the rural fallout of corporate-neoliberal globalization to turn mass incarceration into an often desperately sought “growth industry” for non-metropolitan jurisdictions. As Tracy Huling has ominously noted, “the acquisition of prisons as a conscious economic development strategy for depressed rural communities and small towns in the United States has become widespread.”  Along with “gambling casinos and huge animal confinement units for raising or processing hogs and poultry,” Huling observes, “prisons have become one of the three leading rural economic enterprises as states and localities seek industries that provide large-scale and quick opportunities” (5).  


But each article also made three critical omissions for those who wish to understand the meaning and impact of the rise of a giant rural American prison industrial complex fed by primarily urban, human “raw material.”  The first thing missing was any appropriate sense of horror at a society in which local officials sell the nightmare of mass human confinement as a ticket to the American Dream. As Huling observes, “hundreds of small rural towns and several whole regions have become dependent on an industry that itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditions” [emphasis added] in other parts of the nation (6). 


What are we supposed to make, morally, of a situation in which crime and imprisonment for some are seen as sources of economic “security” for others? When prisons become “a force as much for economic development as for public safety,” citizens in a democracy worth its name should shudder with horror.  Such a state of affairs raises (or ought to raise) sharp moral questions regarding the dominant U.S. social order and the economic options it offers to its populace (7).






The Urban Kept of Color


The second thing missing was the stark racial dimension of the new rural prisonomics.  By the time each of the articles appeared, the most striking aspect of America’s correctional boom beyond its sheer magnitude – the U.S. emerged as the world’s leading incarceration state during the 1990s – was its heavily racialized nature. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of black men in jail or prison grew fivefold (500 percent), to the point where, as the Justice Policy Institute reported in 2002, there were actually more black men behind bars than enrolled in colleges or universities in the United States. On any given day, United States Bureau of Justice Statistics director Jan Chaiken reported in 2000, 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 were under correctional supervision – either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. The nation’s disproportionately urban black populace comprised 12.3 percent of the US population, but blacks made up nearly half of the roughly 2 million Americans behind bars by the turn of the millennium.  The incarceration rate for African-Americans was 1,815 per 100,000 compared to 609 per 100, 000 for Latino-Americans, 99 for Asian-Americans, and 235 for American whites.  For black adult males the incarceration rate was a remarkable 4, 484 per 100,000, compared to 1,668 per 100,000 for Hispanic males and 1,318 for white males. Reflecting astonishing racial disparities in the waging of America’s domestic “War on Drugs,” roughly one in ten of the world’s prisoners was an African-American male by the onset of the 21st century (8).


In 15 percent black Illinois, 64 percent of the state’s prisoners were African-Americans.  The state’s incarceration rate for blacks was 1,550, compared to 127 for whites, per 100,000.  There were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than the number of black males enrolled in the state’s public universities(9). Reflecting the strong correlation between blackness and urban residence in a still highly segregated state and nation (10) 70 percent of the state’s prisoners came from the Chicago metropolitan area, home to 83 percent of the state’s African-Americans.  Ten inner-city Chicago zip codes (including five on the city’s predominantly black West Side and four on the city’s predominantly black South Side) received 25 percent of Illinois prisoners released in the years 2000, 2001, and 2002.  All of those zip codes, equal to less than a quarter of the city’s zip codes, were disproportionately nonwhite for the city as a whole.  Eight were at least two thirds black (in a 37-percent black city) and six were at least 96 percent black (11).



The Caucasian Country Keepers


The color of the “downstate” keepers was a different matter. Eighteen of the twenty adult correctional facilities constructed between 1980 and 2000 in Illinois were located in rural counties that are disproportionately white for the state. Just four of the state’s twenty new (post-1980) prison towns had black municipal populations above the state-average. In three of these cases this was only because census authorities count prisoners as residents of the towns in which they are involuntarily warehoused, not their communities of pre-incarceration residence.


Visitors to outwardly white Ina, Illinois would be surprised to learn from the Census Bureau that that community is officially 42 percent African-American. The explanation, of course, is found in the distorting impact of Big Muddy’s predominantly black prison population on the government’s local race tabulations (12). 


Things are much the same in other states where the nation’s disproportionately urban black population supplies most of the raw material for the “correctional” industry. In New York, prison and census researchers Peter Wagner and Rose Hyer note, three-fourths of the state’s prisoners come from the New York City metropolitan area. Eighty percent of the state’s inmates are black or Latino. Ninety-one percent of them are warehoused in predominantly white “upstate” sections of New York. Those sections host all of the 38 New York state prisons constructed between 1982 and 2000. At the Attica prison, home to a notorious bloody conflict between predominantly nonwhite (and New York City-based) prisoners and predominantly white prison guards, state policemen, and National Guardsmen in September 1971, blacks and Latinos’ together comprised 80 percent of the inmate population by the mid 1990s.  Attica’s prison staff remained 97 percent white “because Attica itself has not moved.  It remains in a rural, overwhelmingly white region of New York State” (13). 



“Prisoners of the Census”


Thanks to the savagely racialized nature of America’s geographically slanted prison demographics and the government’s practice of counting prisoners as if they reside in their prison’s census tract, the United States is dotted with a large number of non-metropolitan jurisdictions that are much more officially black than they appear in their commercial and residential districts. New York is home to eleven rural counties where black prisoners make up 64 percent or more of total black population.  Across the nation, Wagner and Heyer find, there were 173 counties with more than half of their black populations behind bars in 2000.


One such jurisdiction is Ionia County in Michigan, officially home to 2,867 black Americans, all but 165 of whom were warehoused in Ionia’s (the town) five prized penitentiaries.  The most extreme example is Brown County, Illinois.  By official census count, it was 18 percent black in 1999, more proportionately African-American than all but four counties in Illinois.  “All but 5 of the 1,265 blacks reported by the Census Bureau in Brown County,” note Wagner and Heyer, “are incarcerated residents of somewhere else.  The large black population of Brown County is a statistical fiction” (14).



“A Massive Transfer of Value”


If prisons filled by disproportionately black “urban felons” have become a critical source of “economic development” in disproportionately white rural America, then they are also and at the same time a form of what might be called “reverse racial reparations.”  According to the distinguished criminologist Todd Clear, the “economic relocation of resources” from black to white communities that results from racial disparities and related spatial patterns in mass incarceration are considerable.  “Each prisoner represents an economic asset that has been removed from that community and placed elsewhere [emphasis added]….The removal may represent a loss of economic value to the home community, but it is a boon to the prison community.” By Clear’s estimation in the late 1990s, “each prisoner represents as much as $25,000 in income for the community in which the prison is located, not to mention the value of constructing the prison facility in the first place.  This can be a massive transfer of value: A young male worth a few thousand dollars of support to children and local purchases

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