Democratic Underground

America's New Boom
August 3, 2001
by Christopher Harrison

America's New Boom

"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 issue.

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 properly.

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 yard.

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 involved.

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 mending.

The author is the trade issues lead for the Lower Hudson (NY) Sierra Club and an overly irate citizen.

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