Friday, March 9, 2007

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

“TOWNS PUT DREAMS IN PRISONS” BY Paul Street. March 04, 2007

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).

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