Race, Place, and the Perils of Prisonomics


the silences that speak the loudest in dominant media’s coverage
of current events. Consider, for example, a


story that appeared in mid -uly 2001 under the curious
title “Ionia Finds Stability in Prisons.” This article
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 to 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

bigger, nationally focused story on the same topic appeared two
weeks later on page one of the

New York Times


the title “Rural Towns Turn to Prisons to Re-ignite Their Economies.”


reporter Peter 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. As communities become
more and more familiar with the benefits that prisons bring, they
are also becoming increasingly adept at maximizing their windfall
through collecting taxes and healthy public service fees.” 

quoted the city manager of Sayre, Okla- homa, 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.” 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 investments were possible
before prison construction began, 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
during the 1980s. 

extent of some rural communities’ sense of dependence on the
prison industry was poignantly suggested in a

Chicago T


article that appeared six months later, when then-Illinois Governor
George Ryan closed his state’s rural Vienna Correctional Center.
A page one


story on resulting local union protests
noted, “At a time when other industry in Illinois’ southern
end is weak, Vienna and other prisons dotting the [state’s]
farm fields are considered a force as much for economic development
as for public safety.” As southern Illinois coal mines closed
during the 1970s, the paper observed, workers in that region turned
to the Vienna and later the Shawnee correctional facilities for

to the


: “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.” 

time,” the


added, “the local economy has
grown up around the prison like a vine.” 

of these newspaper articles did an excellent job telling an important
story about a striking and relevant contemporary issue. In a land
partly founded on an agrarian ideal, prisoners actually outnumber
farmers. Most of the United States’ “correctional”
facilities are found in rural areas. Two and a half decades of globally
unparalleled prison expansion has combined with the rural economic
fallout of corporate globalization in the U.S. to turn the mass
confinement of mostly urban “offenders” into a leading,
often desperately pursued “growth industry” for non-metropolitan
jurisdictions that have become less able to make good livings in
farming, logging, mining, and manufacturing. 

the 1990s, 245 prisons were built in 212 of the nation’s 2,290
rural counties. As Tracy Huling has 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 reports,
“prisons have become one of the three leading rural economic
enterprises as states and localities seek industries that provide
large-scale and quick opportunities.” 

Caucasian Country Keepers 


the time each of the newspaper articles quoted above were written,
the most striking aspect of the U.S. correctional boom, beyond its
sheer magnitude—the U.S. emerged as the world’s leading
incarceration state by far during the 1990s—was its heavily
racialized nature. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of black men
in jail or prison grew fivefold, 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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
white America. For black adult males the incarceration rate was
a remarkable 4,484 per 100,000, compared to 1,668 per 100,000 for
Latino 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 turn of the millennium. 

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 prison system
than the number of black males enrolled in the state’s public
universities. Reflecting the strong correlation between blackness
and urban residence in a still highly segregated state and nation,
70 percent of the state’s prisoners came from the Chicago metropolitan
area, home to 83 percent of the state’s African Americans. 

color of Illinois’ non-metropolitan “downstate” prison
keepers was an entirely 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,
and in three of these cases this was only because the census authorities
count prisoners as residents of the towns in which they are involuntarily
warehoused, not their communities of pre-incarceration residence. 

were much the same in other states where the nation’s disproportionately
urban black population supplies most of the correctional sector’s
raw material. 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; 80 percent of the
state’s inmates are black or Latino and 91 percent are kept
in predominantly white “upstate” sections of New York.
Those sections host all of the 38 New York state prisons constructed
between 1982 and 2000. 

U.S. 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 11 rural counties
where black prisoners make up 64 percent or more of the 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 prison.

A Massive Transfer of Value 


to 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…. 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
is transformed into a $25,000 financial asset to a rural prison
community. The economy of the rural community is artificially amplified,
the local city economy artificially deflated.” 

quite poor, prisoners deflate the income profiles of downstate communities,
making prison towns eligible for extra poverty-directed public dollars.
The prisoners do not benefit, however, from the rural roads, schools,
and bridges built with public funds tied to prison development.
At the same time, prisoners put relatively minimal strain on local
infrastructure beyond occasional trips to court and the use of prison
shower and toilet facilities. They do not benefit from the enhanced
political power that prisons bring to rural jurisdictions. Politically
disenfranchised prisoners (inmates can vote in only two U.S. states,
both in predominantly white New England) count towards the representation
of the electoral districts in which they are incarcerated, not the
districts from which they came and to which most of them return. 

third thing missing from the journalistic accounts quoted at the
beginning of this article is the terrible effect of racially disparate
mass incarceration on the labor market experience and related economic
and life chances of the disproportionately black inmates who provide
the critical raw material for the nation’s prison boom. The
story of mass incarceration’s role in transferring wealth out
of urban and black communities is incomplete without factoring in
the significant negative impact felony records and prison histories
have on future earnings and employment for those who serve as captive
developmental resources for rural prison towns. If the U.S. prison
construction boom creates some measure of economic stability and
security—just how much is a matter of increasing skepticism
and debate (as we shall see below)—for non-metropolitan communities,
it exacerbates economic chaos and instability for the disadvantaged
and segregated inner-city communities that provide so disproportionately
large a portion of the correctional complex’s “raw material.”


to one social-scientific survey of more than 3,000 employers nationwide,
more than 60 percent of employers would not knowingly hire an ex-offender.
By comparison, 92 percent of employers would likely hire a current
or former welfare recipient and 83 percent would hire someone who
had been unemployed for a year. Reflecting this employer bias and
a host of related barriers, the best social science research finds
that incarceration carries a 10 to 20 percent “wage penalty


Ex- prisoners on average experience no real wage increases in their
20s and 30s, when young men who have never been incarcerated tend
to experience rapid wage-growth. Prison time serves to channel individuals
away from skilled occupations and into job sectors characterized
by low wages, limited job stability, and fewer opportunities for
advancement. It significantly disrupts the career-building process
as ex-offenders are left to “start back at square one,”
in sociologist Devah Pager’s words, “with respect to gaining
a foothold in a particular occupation.” 

incarceration rates are especially high among those with the least
power in the labor market—young and unskilled minority, particularly
African American, men—mass U.S. imprisonment and felony marking
tends to exacerbates racial inequality. Thanks to its racially disparate
labor market and related (under-) developmental consequences, the
prison industrial complex has become a significant form of racially
regressive and highly regulatory state intervention in the U.S.
labor market and economy. Sociologists Bruce Western and Katherine
Beckett find that “the penal system has a pervasive influence
on the life chances of disadvantaged minorities. “Although
typically the preserve of criminology,” Western observes, “incarceration
appears to shape aspects of inequality that are of traditional interest
to stratification researchers. It seems likely that status attainment,
school-to-work transitions, and family structure are all influenced,
perhaps even routinely, by the penal system in the current period
of high incarceration. From this perspective, the usual list of
institutional influences on social stratification—schools,
families, and social policy—should be expanded to consider
the coercive redistribution of life chances through incarceration.” 

doesn’t help, of course, that inmate education and rehabilitation
have been systematically de-legitimized and de-funded at the same
time that the U.S. has built and operated a record number of new
prisons in a spirit of what leading national prisoner “reentry”
expert Jeremy Travis calls “robust retributivism.” 

Limits of Prison-Based Rural Growth



fourth silence has to do with the limits of prison-based economic
development in the rural U.S. As a number of investigators begin
to critically and systematically investigate the impact of prisons
on rural economies, we are discovering that mass incarceration’s
“boon” and “windfall” for non-metropolitan areas
may be much less impressive than advertised. Thanks to state and
union seniority rules, professional certification requirements,
and fierce competition for livable wage jobs in depressed rural
areas, Huling and other researchers report, many rural correctional
positions do not go to people living in prison-hosting towns. According
to a 1998 dissertation study of a prison-hosting county in Missouri,
68 percent of the jurisdiction’s correctional jobs were filled
by people living outside the county. Similar patterns have been
found in California and Washington state. At the same time, as Ryan
S. King, Huling, and Marc Mauer have recently noted, “Prison
construction jobs impose a variety of requirements that local applicants
may not meet,” including the possession of job-specific skills
and correctional guard union membership. “In the high-stakes
competition between towns to host a prison,” these writers
add, “negotiators for the locality are often unwilling to impose
any demands on the state, such as a local hiring quota.”  

powerful is the local “multiplier effect” of a rural prison?
Purchasing most of their supplies from distant corporations that
enjoy cost-cutting economies of scale that are not available to
most local rural businesses, prisons “generate few linkages”
to local and regional prison-hosting economies and “fail to
attract significant numbers of associated industries.” By Huling’s
analysis, a prison is no substitute for, say an automobile plant,
which “might spark the development of delivery companies, radio
assemblers, and electronic harness makers.” Since newly built
prisons tend to attract large-scale national chain stores like McDonalds
and Wal-Mart, moreover, they tend to encourage the demise of locally
controlled enterprises and the loss of locally generated revenues
to distant corporate coffers. To make matters worse, prisons often
tend “to discourage other industries from locating in [a] town
that might, for all other purposes, be perfectly suitable.”
The perception that prisons are often seen as “undesirable
neighbors”—the reasons include fear of escapes, concerns
over prisons’ environmental practices (dumping), and the persistent
societal stigma that still accompanies incarceration—tends
“to ensure that a prison community will never be anything else,
economically speaking.” 

doesn’t help that prison work is often dangerous and stressful,
contributing to elevated rates of substance abuse, divorce, domestic
violence, suicide, and health problems. Kilborn’s


article contained an interesting observation in this regard:
“Residents initial concern for their safety,” Kilborn
noted, “has subsided. No prisoner has escaped. But about 20
guards, residents of Sayre and surrounding communities, have been
injured in fights and assaults. As many as 70 percent of all guards
quit within a year…and the prison is now 19 guards short.” 

meriting attention, captive prisoners sometimes displace lesser
skilled free workers in local “public service” and “community
development” tasks. By Kilborn’s account of Sayre, Oklahoma,
“the city has torn down the old high school and salvaged the
bricks and stone for a new City Hall. The bricks,” Kilborn
noted, “stand in stacks in the prison yard where for no charge
to the city, the inmates are cleaning them.” In a similar vein,

Detroit News

piece on Ionia reported, “It’s
not uncommon to come across an inmate in his prison blues pruning
bushes at police headquarters or, during the winter, shoveling snow
for seniors.” Prior to 1990, Donnelly noted, “The city
never used inmates to work on city projects.” But “now,
they’re all over the place—cleaning, weeding, trimming,
fixing, painting, planting, sweeping, raking, or mowing,” sometimes
even performing tasks reserved for skilled tradesmen. In their rush
to press with the arresting story that prisons were underpinning
economic security in rural communities, neither Kilborn nor Donnelly
thought to wonder if free (for the city, not the state taxpayer
or the inmate-worker) prison labor was displacing and/or otherwise
closing off employment opportunities for less skilled waged labor
in Ionia, where 5 percent of the civilian labor force was officially
unemployed in 1999, or Sayre, which had an unemployment rate of
7.4 percent. 

with these reflections, King, Mauer, and Huling have determined
that prison construction and operation have exercised no positive
effect on local economic development in rural New York during the
last two decades. Examining detailed economic data from 14 rural
New York counties, they find “no significant difference or
discernible pattern of economic trends between the seven rural counties
that hosted [one or more] prison and seven counties that did not
host  prisons.” 

is not true, finally, that mass incarceration lacks “boom and
bust” rhythms. Prison construction and operation develops in
uneven accord with policy and budget cycles, changing public fiscal
capacities, and politicians’ shifting commitment to incarceration
as the “solution” to crime and drug abuse. As Kilborn
noted at the end of his article, “The nation may be on the
verge of a prison glut, bad news for towns that have come to rely
on them. Only 11 prisons have opened or are scheduled to open this
year, compared with 38 in 1998, the peak building year.” 

Non-Material Costs 


carries significant non-economic costs that deserve to be “factored-in”
alongside material “dollars and cents” considerations.
Beyond the often dangerous and stressful nature of correctional
work, it seems likely that many people employed in prisons pay a
certain spiritual price for relying for their daily bread on the
dehumanizing imposition of mass incarceration. At the same time,
the highly racialized nature of the U.S.’s increasingly bucolic
“prison nation” certainly has a negative impact on the
country’s race relations. In the typical “downstate”
Illinois or “upstate” New York (or Michigan) prison, the
only black Americans that many of the predominantly white guards
and other prison staff tend to have contact with are the angriest,
most violent and dangerous products of the nation’s urban ghettos.
Along with the stress and negativity associated with the work of
imposing repressive, explicitly “retributivist” state
punishment on those mostly male and very disparately poor black
Americans, this selective exposure to the black community certainly
tends to reinforce and expand racist sentiments in rural white America.
Meanwhile, captive nonwhite prisoners chafe, their bitterness and
alienation often growing under the constant oppressive eyes, batons,
mace-cans, electronic tasers, cameras, and guns of their Caucasian
overseers. The U.S. prison system’s rejection of its initially
rehabilitative mission only deepens the disaffection of currently
and formerly incarcerated “offenders.” This is a formula
for the exacerbation of racial hatred. It is very different from
placing blacks and whites alongside each other in situations requiring
roughly equal interdependence, as for example in the deep coal mines
that used to be more common in southern Illinois and much of the

make matters worse, anti-black racism is useful for many white prison
staff and communities who might be uncomfortable about their economic
dependence on other human beings’ bondage in “the land
of freedom.” By degrading inmates’ humanity, racist sentiments
can make that potentially painful contradiction seem less glaring
for whites who work (in however subordinate a fashion) in the prison
industrial complex. In the modern mass incarceration setting, as
in other contexts past and present, anti-black racism grants lower
and working-class whites what W.E.B. DuBois called a “public
and psychological wage”—a false and dysfunctional measure
of status and privilege that was used “to make up for alienating
and exploitative class relationships.” White workers in the
U.S. have long tended, as David Roediger has noted, to “define
and accept their [subordinate] class position by fashioning identities
as ‘not slaves’ and ‘not blacks.’” Today
we might add, “and not prisoners.”

the precise socioeconomic and related social-psychological dynamics
at work, it’s hardly surprising to learn that white-supremacist
values and affiliations are relatively widespread among those entrusted
with the control of the nation’s mostly nonwhite prisoners. 

Getting What You Want 


the significant limits of the rural prison “boon,” why
are so many non-metropolitan communities eager to get a new prison
or, alternately, upset at the prospect of losing an existing local
“correctional” facility? Part of the answer is found in
the development-promising sales pitches made by correctional officials
and by “law and order” politicians looking to boost their
election profiles (and their electoral head counts) by bringing
large-scale public works projects (which just happen in the case
of prisons to rely on securing a regular supply of captive human
beings) to their jurisdictions. Leading capitalist enterprises and
unions that benefit from prison construction and maintenance certainly
invest in developmental prison-building propaganda. 

part of the explanation is found in University of Iowa economist
Thomas Pogue’s observation that rural “prisons are being
located where people don’t have much of a choice.” As
Sayre’s mayor told Kilborn, sending mixed messages on the real
extent of the prison “windfall,” “The prison is a
super-positive for us. But it’s a life raft, an inner-tube.
We’re still on the ocean. We’re not going down, but we’re
not really going up either.” In the nation’s disproportionately
impoverished rural areas, as well as in its disadvantaged urban
ghettoes, an inferior development path is preferable to no path
at all. Like many ordinary poor and modest-income people and communities
in the U.S. living under the rule of exceptionally top-heavy, management-intensive,
inequitable, and low-wage corporate political economy, rural prison
towns probably do not so much get what they want as want what they
get. “Beggars can’t be choosers” under the “zero-
sum” rules of an ever-more regressive, wealth- concentrating,
and poverty-generating capitalism that had made the U.S. the most
unequal nation in the industrialized world. 

interesting and potentially progressive thing here is that people
and communities on both sides of the spatially and racially loaded
mass incarceration coin need very similar social and political changes.
Both groups require and deserve decent, good-paying, and soul-nourishing
jobs, the reconstruction and expansion of basic social-contractual
safety nets, and significant public investments in things like public
education, job-training, substance abuse treatment, universal health
insurance, child care, and public transportation—to mention
just some of the unmet program needs. They both need the U.S. to
shift from a low-road to a high-road of balanced, high-wage, and
worker- (instead of management and supervision-) centered development.
They both need the U.S. to shift public resources from regressive,
repressive, and well-funded (in the U.S.) “right hand of the
state” to the more egalitarian, social, democratic, and less
well-funded “left hand” of the state. They both need and
deserve a greater share of the nation’s wealth, which tends
to concentrate in the nation’s affluent white metropolitan
suburbs and upscale urban neighborhoods. They both need and deserve
a greater say in local, regional, and national socioeconomic planning
and management and in the allotment of globalization’s costs
and benefits. They both need and deserve meaningful development
choices beyond the confines of an authoritarian, racist, zero-sum
political economy that has generated the most unequal distribution
of wealth in the industrialized world and given rise to an intimately
related, dangerously proto-fascistic and racist “prison nation.”

the encouraging fact that most people in the U.S. actually oppose
the vicious circle of racially disparate mass incarceration and
that there are few policy mysteries on how to break that circle,
these and other commonalities of interest between the prison-fed
and the prison-feeding communities provide some basis for optimism
regarding the prospects for rolling back racially disparate mass
incarceration in the U.S.

Paul Street is
the author of

Empire and Inequality: America and the World
Since 9/11

(Paradigm Publishers, 2004);

Still Separate, Unequal:
Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago

(the Chicago
Urban League, 2005); and

Segregated Schools: Class, Race, and
Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era

from Routledge).