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The Hidden Subsidies of Rural Prisons

by Dr. Hannah Walker
June 13, 2018

This interview with Dr. Hannah Walker, an assistant professor of Political Science and Criminal Justice at Rutgers University was conducted and condensed by frank news. Her research examines the impact of the criminal justice system on American democracy with special attention to minority and immigrant communities. Previously, she served as a post doctoral fellow with the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University, and received her PhD from the University of Washington.

In the article "The Hidden Subsidies of Rural Prisons" by Hannah Walker, Rebecca U Thorpe, Emily K Christensen and JP Anderson we were given insight into the collateral consequences of the prison system in rural communities. 

The authors write: "This paper links the rise of a punitive punishment regime that disproportionately targets poor, urban minorities and the increasing use of rural spaces to warehouse prisoners. Preliminary evidence from a unique dataset across three states suggests that housing large, institutionalized prison populations inflates population counts in otherwise shrinking rural areas and operates as a hidden subsidy for rural counties with prison infrastructure. Prisons contribute to the immediate economic viability of predominantly white, lower class rural areas, despite devastating costs borne elsewhere."

How did you find yourself doing this particular research?

It came out of a larger project that I've been working on with Rebecca Thorpe. Rebecca Thorpe is a professor at the University of Washington which is where I finished my graduate studies. She was working on a project that tries to look at how political representatives vote on punitive policy issues depending on whether or not they have a prison located in the district that they represent.

Within the work of Hidden Subsidies what were the specific collateral consequences you focused on?

In Hidden Subsidies we were specifically looking at state fiscal transfers to counties. Looking at how having a prison in your County can actually shape those funding streams, because many of the funding formulas that public officials employ to try to determine how much money is going to be given to various entities, take population into account.

What we also know is that the census counts individuals who are incarcerated in the places where they're incarcerated instead of in the community that they come from. Those prisons can actually artificially inflate the population in rural communities.

In hidden subsidies what we find is that that artificial inflation helps to funnel extra funding to poor rural communities that might go elsewhere. Within that context we are seeing rural communities be advantaged by the placement of a prison within their communities.

Thinking about the collateral damage of prisons and of incarceration it's important to situate the siting of prisons in rural communities within a larger political economic framework.

Rural communities over the last half of the 20th century, have become incredibly neglected, and the businesses, and economic infrastructure that supported those communities originally, for various reasons, began to die in the late 20th century. Those communities needed a way to reinvent themselves to become once again economically viable. Some communities may, because of location, reinvent themselves around tourism. But not all communities have that option.

They become dumping grounds for less desirable types of businesses. Things like nuclear power plants for example, or prison.

They court prisons, they give them tax breaks. They do all kinds of things to be able to have a prison located in the community with the idea that prisons will provide jobs for individuals living in those communities, and for other businesses to rise up around to the prison.

Are these prisons primarily private?

No. They are not all private. Many of them are public.

Still the same courting process?

Yes. Absolutely. They don't always pay out. They often need more skilled labor than the communities can offer, workers come from elsewhere to work in the prison. The type of businesses that rise up around the prison are usually service-based industry, gas stations, restaurants, hotels — that aren’t providing full employment. The other thing that happens in those communities is that because the prison is located there, they become a less desirable site for other types of businesses that might have come in.

It really ends up being a weight around the community's neck.

And once a prison is in, it’s hard to get rid of.

Yes. Another way we might try to understand what the long-term economic effects of a prison are on a rural community is to look towards New York State, which has been on the leading edge of trying to close down many of their rural prisons. What happened in New York State is that first of all, the residents of those communities fought to keep the prison open because they perceive themselves to be very economically dependent on those prisons. And in places where the prison had shut down, nothing came to replace it.

It's not as if the prison has been repurposed into some other type of facility — other economic forces have not come in and replaced whatever meager economic provision that prison was able to provide.

It’s part of the larger move in New York to try to de-escalate their incarcerated population. There's a pretty strong progressive movement in the state. There has also been a movement in the state to try to reform census practices of counting prisoners were they’re housed and to count those individuals as members of the community where they’re from.

If it’s been shown that prisons in rural communities are not lastingly improving the economy — why are they still so appealing?

There are incentives in terms of getting extra funding from the state. I think there’s still a really strong perception that prisons can help those communities. The other part of it is to remember that these communities are in really, really bad shape. They don't have a lot of options, and so prison siting, even if it comes with some negatives attached to it might seem like a good idea for a community that is in very, very poor condition. Those are some of the political incentives I think to initially site a prison and then once the prison is sited those incentives are self reinforcing.

How do you discuss this with people in a way that moves beyond the statistics?

I focus on explaining that the types of jobs that come associated with the prison are really the type of jobs that they wouldn’t necessarily want to have, aren’t the types of jobs that could provide a viable living. They’re part-time jobs that pay very low wages and don't come attached with benefits.

But that can only be part of the story. We also have to be able to offer these communities an alternative model, and alternative source of funding. I'm not totally sure what that alternative model might look like, but we have to be able to talk to them about other ways in which their communities can become economically viable again if they forego a prison site. Then there are actively larger structural changes that try to support economically impoverished communities both rural and urban.

I would like to complicate the racial frame. We talk about mass incarceration and we talk about the collateral consequences of the incarceral State —  we often talk about it in terms of the new Jim Crow and we talk about its disparate impact on black and Latino communities, and that disparate impact cannot be understated.

The negative impact of the criminal justice system on urban communities and all communities of color cannot be understated.

It's also important to point out that particularly in the South the rural communities where these prisons are located, are communities that are not predominantly white. They’re diverse, they’re communities where black and brown people live.

The companion phenomenon is that increasingly populations that are incarcerated are coming from the rural communities themselves, particularly with the rise of the opioid epidemic. One of the fastest-growing segments of the incarcerated population is among white rural folks. I want to complicate that racial frame to highlight that the way we manage incarceration in the United States right now isn't to the benefit of anyone. It's not to the benefit of the rural communities where our prisons are located.

The way that we manage incarceration in the United States isn't to the benefit of anyone.