BY MICHAEL REISIG –
A prison town, huh? That’s what we’ve come to – contemplating becoming a prison town? The bottom of the barrel in rural communities…
I recently read the piece in The Pulse where citizens offered their thoughts on the concept of a maximum-security prison in Mena (which is now being considered). Few of the people who chimed in had any understanding of the changes this would bring, and half of them couldn’t even discern between a maximum-security prison and a new county jail. A maximum-security prison is never going to see any of the “methheads” we have now. It’s not going to increase our street safety one iota, or make us the Vegas of Western Arkansas. In fact, real evidence suggests that, by and large, prisons do not produce economic growth for local economies and can, over the long term, have detrimental effects on their social fabric.
A new county jail will be a good thing for the county – a very good thing (and a good place to keep our methheads). But jails and prisons are two different animals. Having studied several reports regarding this enterprise, I’m going to offer you what I’ve discovered – hopefully take the glaze off your eyes a little.
So you think we’re going to get a zillion jobs, huh? Here’s the truth: the majority of prison jobs do not go to people already living in the area of the prison. Higher-paying management and correctional officer jobs come with educational and experience requirements that most rural residents do not have. Seniority (and often union rules) in correctional systems require that these prisons are operated by large cadres of veteran correctional personnel from other prisons. In addition, competition for jobs in depressed areas is fierce, so rural residents compete in a wider than normal circle for available positions – (from DeQueen to Waldron we will compete to be cooks, maintenance people, and cleaners.)
How about property values and community challenges? The impact of prisons on housing can also cause economic hardships for the poor and elderly in rural communities. Both land and rental values generally increase when a prison is authorized. But land values fall once the actual (low) number of locally-gained jobs, and associated homeowners, becomes clear. However rents never return to their old values. In addition, those of you who are considering selling your home sometime in the future need to determine how comfortable you are saying; “Oh, by the way, we do have a large prison in our community…”
The “hidden costs” and other issues of a prison in your community can be high. Local courts are often the first to feel the impact. In many states, county or district public defenders are responsible for defending indigent inmates charged with committing crimes (e.g. assaults on guards and other inmates) within state prisons. Since private prison guards do not have the same police powers that state or federal correctional officers do, many disciplinary infractions in private prisons are handled by district or county courts. While it’s touted that many local work projects are performed by prisoners for area government and organizations, all this really does is take jobs from Polk County contractors.
What’s it going to cost us? Let me use an example here: In 1995 the town of Bonne Terre, MO, decided to get themselves a fancy new prison. (Probably had methheads making their decisions for them). The town purchased the land for the prison and issued bonds to help pay for $14 million in improvements that included new roads, sewer, and water lines. In 2001, six years later, the city was in debt, and the new businesses mostly broke or gone, because state budget shortfalls delayed the opening of the prison. The town has since been forced to pay back the debt on these loans without the expected increases in revenue from the prison.
Then there’s the huge amount of natural resources (like water) that are required to operate a prison, and the huge amount of refuse (sewage, garbage, etc) that has to go somewhere – probably into our ecosystem.
Once you’re a prison town, you’re a prison town. If you think this community is having trouble drawing in new businesses now, wait until we have to tell prospective companies: “Oh, by the way, we do have a large prison in our community…” As is often the case, the only industrial recourse you have is to build another prison… You become nothing more than a penal colony.
What happens to our community? It is well documented that the dehumanization of both prisoners and guards that inevitably takes place in prisons takes a huge toll on the loved ones, neighbors, and friends of correctional people. There are mountains of evidence regarding increased rates of divorce, alcoholism and substance abuse, suicide, health problems, family violence, and other crimes associated with prison communities.
Finally, in this politically correct nation we live in, it’s difficult to find figures on the percentage of inmate’s relatives that relocate to the area in which their spouse/child/brother/sister is incarcerated, but you can be certain that the social fabric of Mena is going to change when the families of criminals decide to move here to be close to their kin. My bet is, five years from now, thirty percent of the new people living in this area will be relatives of the people in our “new prison”. I suspect we will find there’s little social or economic benefit there.
The choice is ours – let’s not make a poorly thought out, frantic decision that will haunt this community for generations to come.
The views and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the ownership and staff of The Polk County Pulse. Michael Reisig is a freelance writer and published author whose works are reproduced throughout the globe.