Prior to election of Donald Trump, many scholars and policymakers alike were hopeful that America’s “grand social experiment” with mass incarceration was slowly coming to an end. They saw Americans embracing a more pragmatic and rehabilitative approach to punishment and even private prisons were on the decline. However, with the Trump administration’s support for harsher crime and immigration policies, it appears as though the current prison infrastructure will multiply rather than be supplanted. In a recent piece for The Conversation, sociologist John M. Eason discusses the complicated relationship between prison proliferation and rural communities.
As Eason demonstrates, from 1970 to 2000, the number of prisons in the United States more than tripled from 511 to 1,663, the large majority of which were built in rural areas in conservative Southern states. Scholars have argued that this rise in prisons is the result of a prison-industrial complex that exploits minority populations to the benefit of poor, white, rural towns. However, Eason’s research complicates this narrative, pointing to the fact that prisons are more likely to be built in communities with a larger share of black and Hispanic populations, and that minorities are overrepresented among correctional officers in prison facilities.
Eason also discusses his new book Big House on the Prairie, which follows the development of a federal prison in Forrest City, Arkansas. His book uncovers how prisons are more than just about job-creation to the communities in which they are housed, demonstrating that the prison in Forrest City united an entire community as a reputation building project. He concludes that rural communities are marred by many of the same problems associated with low-income urban neighborhoods, and that local prisons help bring a temporary boost to many struggling local economies. These economic incentives are a large factor in why these rural towns are unwilling, and perhaps unable, to support prison downsizing. Eason concludes:
“Weaning rural communities off the prison economy will mean considering alternative investment strategies like green industries. If we do not provide creative alternatives to depressed rural communities, we stand little chance in reducing their over-reliance on prisons.”