California Town Seeks Revival From Prison; Experts Cautious


Residents of Mendota, Ca., a town of 10,000 35 miles west of Fresno are hoping for an economic turnaround when the federal government opens a 1,100-inmate prison just down the road, bringing jobs and paying customers to the area, the Los Angeles Times reports. Never mind the prospect of guard towers, razor wire, and the occasional jailbreak – small towns in many parts of California are welcoming prisons, and the jobs that come with them, with open arms. At least six counties and two cities have approved measures to allow new prisons in their jurisdictions, says the state Department of Corrections, which is overseeing a $6-billion prison expansion program that includes construction of at least 35 new facilities.

While prisons often do bring more customers to local restaurants, gas stations and other businesses, the overall economic benefits are mixed, some experts say. Well-paid prison employees usually live some distance from the low-income areas that tend to attract prisons, and usually don’t spend their salaries in town, said Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a USC professor who has studied how prisons affect California towns. Employers also avoid setting up shop anywhere near prison walls. Real estate values typically decline near prisons because people don’t want to live near them, said Terry Besser, a professor at Iowa State. In Mendota, however, city leaders are confident they made the right call in pushing federal officials to build the massive gray-block structure on land where farmers once grew crops. The agricultural slowdown has made the town seek a new economic driver. Construction was completed in April; although the opening date has not yet been set, hiring is well underway.

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