Michael Connelly of the essential blog Corrections Sentencing writes in with a thoughtful comment on the economic impact of upstate New York prison shutdowns. It’s in the comments section on yesterday’s post re: Simple Justice, but I wanted to highlight it here because a) he makes an excellent point, b) it gives me a chance to plug his excellent blog, and c) it gives me a chance to encourage other readers to make your own excellent points in the woefully underused comments section. (Lisa Kenney, please don’t think I haven’t noticed your thoughtful questions and comments; your plug is coming shortly!)
Here’s Connelly’s comment:
It’s important to keep in mind the studies that question the economic gain that these communities receive. The people who hold the “high dollar” jobs are associated with the prisons as a rule don’t tend to live in the town since it’s a, you know, prison town. They live in the closest bigger community with enough amenities on which to spend their “high dollar” incomes. And the benefits of the spending of the “low dollar” employees frequently are offset by the new drains on the community for services caused by offender families moving to the town. It’s not that the communities won’t suffer some hardship if the prisons close, but that hardship rarely has equaled what we would have expected from the economic benefits predicted when the prisons were sited there.
Another reason to highlight this comment: d) This is an important conversation, one I think we should be having as the long-sought shutdowns actually come to pass. As more and more people (mainstream media types, ‘tough on crime’ politicians, everyday folks) wake up to the reality that the prison-industrial complex is downsizing, or should downsize, it will be important to understand the impact (or lack thereof) in order to refute the myths and assumptions that will color the public discussion: namely, fears that shrinking the prison economy will come with dire consequences, threatening public safety and sucking jobs from otherwise depressed towns.
My response to the article in Sunday’s New York Times, the article that got this conversation going, wasn’t to accept the meme that the consequences will be severe. Rather, I think it’s important for reform advocates to acknowledge that there is a human cost rather than to dismiss it outright; granting credence to the other side of the debate before staking a strong claim for reform makes for a more persuasive argument, I think. Rhetorically, my response goes something like this: “Yes, there is a cost, but…” Connelly’s comment eloquently finishes that thought.