Jail-Building ‘Boom’ Financed by Dept of Agriculture Funds: Study

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Illustration courtesy Prison Policy Initiative

Rural communities are in the midst of a quiet jail boom, financed in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to a new study released by the Vera Institute of Justice.

“USDA funds are now increasingly being directed to helping some rural counties build new, expanded jails, and helping others stay in the business of immigrant detention,” authors Jack Norton and Jacob Kang-Brown said.

Last summer, the Trump administration announced that the USDA would give farmers up to $12 billion around harvest time to insulate them from the effects of the administration’s trade wars, the study, titled “Farm Aid for the Big House,” noted.

At the same time, according to public records, the Trump administration also increased USDA investment in jail construction, the study continued. 

“Over the past four decades, and in the context of increasing inequality and economic decline in rural areas, the construction and expansion of the infrastructure of incarceration has been justified in terms of rural development.”

Researchers looked specifically at USDA funding in New York’s Greene County and Florida’s Baker County, and found that USDA funding is building new jails that the majority of the community does not want.

In upstate New York, Greene County is going forward with a $39 million low-interest loan application to the USDA to build a massive new jail “that many in the community simply do not want.” And, in Baker County, Florida, a USDA refinancing loan is essentially bailing out investors in a large, county-run jail and immigrant detention center.

The planned Greene County facility was designed to hold nearly 100 people, despite an average daily population of 50 in the jail last year. Filling the new jail would put Greene County in the top 10 largest New York jails on a per capita basis, the study noted. To pay for the project, which is unusually costly because it will be sited on poorly drained clay, the county has submitted a $39 million loan application to the USDA, according to authors. 

Researchers found the debate over the proposed jail in Greene County has become a debate over the meaning of development in this rural county.

“What they [the USDA] seem to be doing,” one Greene County activist said in the report, “is helping to make people more disadvantaged upstate. And one of the key questions is, are they really encouraging people who borrow money to have more [jail] beds?”

More, in 2008, Baker County, in northern Florida, took on $45 million in debt on the municipal bond market to build a 512-bed jail, data showed.  The objective, according to documents sent to investors, was to rent the new beds to federal agencies in order to create a revenue stream.

“By building a jail that far exceeded the county’s needs, Baker hoped to earn enough to pay for incarcerating an increasing number of people held for the county,” authors said.

Researchers concluded that the USDA, by offering low-interest loans for jail construction in agricultural areas, is facilitating investment in incarceration rather than other community needs.

The USDA Community Facilities program, meant to improve economic development and quality of life, is instead increasingly being used to fund the infrastructure to detain and incarcerate more people in rural counties across the country.” 

See also: “Rural America’s Jail Dilemma.”

A full copy of the report can be found here.

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Megan Hadley.

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