Monday, February 21, 2011

Cuomo: Prisons Not Economic Development Tool

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took the bold step of taking on the prison industrial complex. "An incarceration program is not an employment program," he declared in his January state of the state address. "Don't put other people in prison in order to give some people jobs." The governor went on to say,"If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs. That's not what this state is all about. And that has to end this session."

How did prison construction become an employment program for rural America?

Prison facilities were once viewed with aversion as threats to a community’s well-being, prisons today are the focus of competitive bids by rural communities desperate for economic stability. However, the dire economic times and shrinking state budgets have made prisons a target for cost cutting,The Paradox of Prison-Based Economic Development in Rural America (The Paradox).

Proponents of the prisons-as-development strategy contend that prison jobs offer better wages and create more stability than the few industries that remain in rural America. Prisons as a form of economic development resulted from the convergence of two unrelated trends in America: the economic downturn in rural America and the increase in U.S. prison populations.

The practice of state and federal agencies cramming a prison down a community’s throat is certainly a thing of the past. In modern America finding a home for a prison has become a competition between rural municipalities seeking jobs for their communities.

The experience of Nebraska in the mid-1990s is indicative. With prison capacity at 149%, Nebraska’s Governor appointed a committee to recommend sites for a new prison. Sixteen communities submitted bids for the prison based on criteria developed by the committee That list was narrowed to five communities; the committee held public hearings in each and chose two on the basis of community and political support. The final decision was based on the need for economic development in each community and the work force availability, The Paradox.

Cuomo's announcement drew praise from prison reform advocates like Bob Gangi. "It's somewhat ironic that he says that's not what this state is all about," Gangi told National Public Radio. "Because that's what the state has been about for about the last 30 years."

Gangi says the old policy was too expensive. The Department of Correctional Services still employs nearly 19,000 prison guards statewide. But Gangi argues that the system also created an economic incentive to lock up people who should have been in drug rehab or mental health counseling.

"One of the problems with using incarceration as a jobs program is the fundamental immorality of it," Gangi told NPR. "Because as he said, you're locking up people in order to provide other people jobs."

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