What Prisons Really Do to Local Communites

July 12th 2015

Everybody's fascinated by a prison break -- CNN's breathless coverage of the recent escape in upstate New York is evidence of that. Imagining if, when, and how those fugitives would be caught, and then watching the actual manhunt was addictive. However, America’s incarceration fixation extends past escape plots. Our imaginations are tantalized by what goes on behind bars, from classic movies like "Cool Hand Luke" or "Alcatraz," to a slew of incarceration-themed reality shows and now Netflix’s "Orange Is The New Black." America has reserved a place for the prison system: the imagination.

Ever since the War on Drugs, prison populations exploded in America, and state governments and private contractors couldn’t build prisons fast enough. But where to put them? Rural areas offered large tracts of land and communities in need of redevelopment; and the stats seemed to support the idea that building a prison offered a great economic incentive for struggling rural economies.

In the eyes of struggling rural communities in the 1980s (when the War on Drugs was elevated), a new prison seemed like a clear economic incentive and platform for future growth. Local officials believed that the average prison would create around 35 jobs for every 100 inmates housed. Furthermore it was thought that prisons were economic “multipliers,” or creators of spin-off jobs. Prisoners needed guards, guards needed wardens, and both guards and wardens often have families. The influx of people would mean an influx of workers to serve the prison guards: Big Macs at McDonalds, or coffee at the 7-Eleven. Since 1980, more than 350 rural counties have sited prisons. Former New York State Assemblyman Daniel Feldman once noted, “So many communities very, very much want [prisons] ... they will tell their legislator, ‘You get me a prison.’” Prisons are sold as economic stimuli to the town with the highest bid and are commonplace in rural areas.

But, as is the case far too often in America’s relationship with incarceration, our imaginations are at odds with reality.

A 2003 study published by the Sentencing Project that examined the relationship between rural communities in prison counties in upstate New York and the prisons they house found that “reliance upon a prison as a means of economic development is short sighted,” and didn’t provide any long-term growth. The study deals only with New York state, but the evidence is hard to ignore. Over a 25-year period there was no significant difference in unemployment rate trends between the prison and non-prison counties -- in fact, from the beginning of the prison building boom until 2000, per capita income rose 9 percent more in counties without a prison. In short, prisons were not the economic boon they were made out to be.

Though prisons create jobs, their potential economic impact is stunted by one simple truth: the money and jobs that prisons bring in rarely stay in those rural communities. The prison employees are often brought in from other areas, as are the materials and labor used to build the prisons. The local workforce is often pitted against not only imported workers, but the prisoners themselves, who work menial custodial jobs for literal prison-wages. If the local businesses and infrastructure struggle to keep up with the economic needs of the prison -- and rural communities are rarely set up to handle such a quick turnaround -- those needs are outsourced as well. The theoretical “multipliers” are almost completely counteracted by a new prison’s remarkably poor ability to create any lasting link with its community. Prisons are, in every sense of the term, closed communities.


The Corrections Corporation of America, which owns and operates most of America’s private prisons, reported a profit of $1.7 billion in 2012. Clearly money is being made in the prison industry, but prison dollars don’t find their way into the coffers of the communities in which they reside. Rather, they line the pockets of the corporations that are allowed to take advantage of those communities.


One of those communities is Leavenworth, Kansas, a small town with a population of about 35,000I worked as a bicycle mechanic in downtown Leavenworth, and during my time there I became acutely aware of Leavenworth’s uneasy relationship with its prisons.

Leavenworth County is home to five correctional facilities; the privately owned and operated Leavenworth Detention Center, the state operated Lansing correctional facility, two separate military correctional facilities (one of which is where Chelsea Manning is currently imprisoned), and the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth (where Michael Vick served his 21-month sentence for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring).

If prisons were the catalyst for thriving economies that we make them out to be, Leavenworth’s astounding concentration of five prisons within 10 miles should be making a big economic impact. Though it's tough to draw a direct correlation, Leavenworth is far from a bustling prison-fed economy -- or maybe it’s exactly what a bustling prison-fed economy looks like. 

If you veer too far from the main thoroughfares, the city can quickly turn from quaint to dilapidated semi-ruin. There are abandoned lots and storefronts, a few abandoned churches. With an estimated per capita income of around $23,000 for 2012, Leavenworth lags behind the national average (the national per capita income in 2012 was $42,693).

In addition to the five prisons, Leavenworth is home to Fort Leavenworth, a military base that’s been in operation since 1827. Delaware Street, the town’s main drag, is lined with shops that strictly adhere to the military protocol of promptly hoisting your American flags at sunrise and ceremoniously lowering them at sunset. Leavenworth also sits on a section of the Lewis and Clark trail, so the streets are adorned with reminders of a trading-post past; decorative covered wagons, and multiple frontier-themed storefronts. As summer turns to fall, the town begins decorating for Buffalo Bill Days, a fall festival as Midwestern and steeped in frontier folklore as the celebration’s name would suggest. Leavenworth’s official motto is “First City of Kansas.” It’s easy to forget the prisons are even there. 

On the way into Leavenworth, there is a sign in the shape of a guitar reminding visitors that they’re entering the hometown of Melissa Etheridge, but no sign welcoming visitors to the home of the "big house." There are no decorative jail cells on Delaware Street, nor a seasonal celebration of prisons and their role in the community. The people of Leavenworth do not have the same relationship with their identity as a prison town as they do with their military and frontier town identities. 

In some ways, Leavenworth’s plight matches that of the country. The reality of the American prison system is much less romantic and exciting than the way it manifests in our imagination. More and more private prisons are being built to meet our seemingly insatiable inclination to incarcerate, and we pawn our new prisons off on our rural communities because nobody else wants them. Prisons are overpopulated, and incarceration has become not only an institution, but an investment -- with narrow returns for communities, and huge profits for the private prison industry. 

Though we love a good prison break story, we can’t seem to manufacture one for ourselves. We share Leavenworth’s uncomfortable relationship with an abundance of prisons, and deep down we know there’s something wrong with a system that benefits the few and imprisons the many. But as a country we prefer to sequester prisons to our imagination, to forget they’re real, and to forget how powerful an industry the prison-industrial-complex has become. The incarceration rate in the United States is the highest in the developed world, but our business card still reads “Land of the Free” because nobody wants to be a prison town.

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