August 3, 2001
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
- Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)
To most of us lucky enough to live in the United States,
these words resonate with the peal of the Liberty Bell and
the entrepreneurial spirit that has come to symbolize America
throughout the years. They are, after all, the words of the
last verse at the base of the Statue of Liberty Ė the anthem
that has greeted wave upon wave of immigrants in New York
Harbor. People leaving behind all they ever knew in search
of a great and novel ideal: The American Dream. In the United
States, it is said, anything is possible. All you have to
do is work hard and get a little bit lucky.
Over the last few years, these words could also symbolize
economic opportunities for small towns scattered throughout
rural America. Unfortunately, they tend to cast shadow rather
than light over the American Ideal.
In ever-growing instances, the "wretched refuse"
of the United States is being shipped to the "golden
door" of new prisons springing up all over the countryside.
As the private prisons business has grown, small towns left
behind by the closing of manufacturing industries, drying
up of crops, or the bust of the oil and gas business have
clamored to be named as sites for new correctional facilities.
In many instances these prisons are the only economic lifeline
available to these towns. In an August 1, 2001 New York
Times article, University of Iowa Economics Professor
Thomas F. Pogue states, "(Prisons are) a more stable
industry for a town than a manufacturing plant. The wage level
is a problem, but these prisons are being located where people
donít have much of a choice."
We cannot blame the people of small towns with few options
for wanting to have prisons built. Because, when given a choice
between putting food on the table and going hungry, I know
which I would probably choose.
What these new prisons have done is created a symbiotic relationship
between the rurally poor and urban poor of this country for
all the wrong reasons. And that is the real tragedy of this
Poor people throughout the country, especially in urban areas,
are more likely to be convicted of a crime than people of
a middle or upper class background. There are many causes
for this: the current war on drugs, disparity in arrests and
sentencing with regards to income and race, lack of opportunities
Ė it is a complex issue which would require volumes to discuss
People living in the suburbs donít want a prison disrupting
the trip from their housing development to the local mall
or country club. Prisons are met with the same sort of "out
of sight, out of mind" attitude as are power plants and
poultry rendering facilities. Put it in somebody elseís back
Thatís where the down-and-out small towns come into the equation.
After seeing the traditional small town way of life go the
way of the American textile industry, mom-and-pop store and
the brontosaurus; the rurally poor are left grasping at straws
to try and keep their lives afloat. Then, along comes a private
prison corporation with the promise of hundreds of new jobs
with benefits. Not to mention the possiblility of a new department
store, hotel or truck stop to support the new industry. They
jump at the opportunitity to resurrect their old way of life.
But their old way of life is long gone. Prisons do not offer
prosperity. They offer merely a way for a small town to remain
afloat. And they do so at social costs to almost every party
The attractiveness of prisons to these small towns creates
a demand for more prisoners, especially draining on the populations
of young males within poor inner city neighborhoods. These
prisoners are often hardened from their time in prison, learning
little more than how to survive in a criminal world most of
us canít imagine. So they bring these survival skills back
to their communities upon their release. More often than not,
these released prisoners end up back in prison. And they sometimes
are able to pass their criminal expertise on to the younger
generation before doing so, thus widening the swath from the
scythe of American justice. These neighborhoods are trapped
in a cyclical pattern of destruction from within.
And the small towns depending on the prisons do not remain
unscarred. Approximately 70 percent of all prison guards quit
within a year. Even though they are on the outside of the
bars, those who perservere are subjected to the daily routine
of prison life. The psychological costs of this line of work
can be enormous, outweighing any benefits or salary. In his
book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, journalist Ted Conover
goes undercover as a guard at Sing Sing Maximum Security Correctional
Facility in Ossining, NY, and details what he encounters.
He finds that he is still haunted by what he encountered inside
the bars some two years afterwards; and that it was impossible
for him to forget his work each day as he left the gate. Now
we have entire towns basing their livelihoods on this industry.
One can only guess at the emotional and social costs to the
families who depend on the prison to put food on the table.
The prison boom is playing the poor of this nation like pawns
against one another. Rurally and inner-city poor are dependent
on one another for survival while at the same time contributing
to their mutual destruction. But few of our elected officials
are coming up with any answers to this complex problem. If
they canít give us answers, it is high time we all take notice
and start coming up with answers ourselves. To do less runs
the risk of tearing our societal fabric beyond the point of
author is the trade issues lead for the Lower Hudson (NY)
Sierra Club and an overly irate citizen.