New York State is facing a $13 billion deficit, and a falling inmate population, and Gov. David A Paterson wants to save $26 million by shuttering four prison facilities. Faced with the prospect of losing a big part of their economic base, small, distressed towns and cities are banding together with a common cry: “Save Our Prison!,” reports the Washington Post. “This is a major impact on a small community,” said Paul Lashway, a guard for the past 10 years.
He is also a steward for the local corrections officers’ union. “I thought we were trying to save jobs,” he said. “Here, they’re trying to take ’em.” The prison union is leading an effort that includes lobbying the legislature, direct mailing, and radio ads in the affected communities. It’s a conflict being played out across the country.
The number of inmates boomed in the 1980s and 1990s, in part because of high crime rates and stiff mandatory-sentencing laws that targeted drug offenders. States rushed to build additional prisons to keep up with what appeared to be a growth industry. Many struggling, mostly rural, communities came to see prisons as a substitute for the family farms and the small manufacturing plants that were vanishing. Gregory Hooks, a sociology professor at Washington State University, who analyzed the economies of prisons, said that the pool of free inmate labor eliminates the pool of low-paid manual labor jobs, further depressing local economies. Prisons make communities dependent but without much return to the community, because the jobs are secured for life. He said a local prison may make an area less attractive to other types of businesses, particularly those catering to tourists.