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Prison Towns

As factories close and well-paying jobs are increasingly hard to find, new prisons have been adopted by many rural towns as an economic development solution. Prison jobs are relatively well-paying and bring with them additional economic activity for local merchants, property owners, and local governments. For many small towns, however, hosting new prisons becomes a devil's bargain as prison guards show high turnover, commute from larger neighboring towns, or burn out and become a burden on local social services. Small towns are rarely prepared for the increased need that prisons bring, from schooling for children to mental health and domestic violence counseling for relocated prisoners' and prison guards' families. And as state or federal agencies, prisons usually pay no taxes to the local governments that provide these services.

Perhaps one resident's description of the opening of High Desert State Prison in California best describes the negative transformation a prison can make to a struggling town: " By day, no one could mistake the prison for what it is, with its gray cement structures, high fencing with spiraling razor wire, guard towers with tinted glass, and silence. But it is at night that the prison seems to take on a life of its own... The prison is surrounded by 30-foot-high poles topped with glaring amber lights. The resulting glow changes the night sky, affects the entire county-the yellow glow can be seen 50 miles away, and even planes flying over Sacramento, 200 miles to the south, can see the prison. On overcast nights, the clouds reflect the prison's light, casting the sky into an eerie, hellish spectacle, like embers from a tremendous firestorm, fallout from a war." (She goes on to describe that intense community opposition was unable to get the Department of Corrections to alter the lighting.) Architects, designers, and planners have much more to offer to small towns than helping them to cage the unwanted urban poor and house the guards whose lives are increasingly pressured by prison conditions. We can be part of better development solutions in rural America, but only if we stop building prisons first and put our resources behind better priorities.

Copyright 2004 ADPSR unless otherwise noted.