Salvation Through Incarceration
Posted by thedarwinexception on February 5, 2007
As we were saying, Dutch Schultz slept here – and he is not the only criminal to ever call Malone “home.” Of the 15,000 people who live and work in Malone, roughly 1/3 of them are people who have never even walked the strets, drank in the bars, or shopped at one of the 3 “Rent to Own” stores. Although, as a whole, they are the largest consumers of the 6 “Dollar Stores” and 4 chain Pharmacies – they are the inmates who reside in Malone’s three prisons.
Looking to recapture it’s past days of glory – the days that attracted enough of a population that it could support such businesses as the once opulent Flanagan Hotel – in the 1980’s Malone decided that instead of luring new industries such as the then upcoming technical market, or expanding the textile industries anchored by the existing “Tru Stitch Footware” plant, the direction the town should take was to welcome the newest growth industry in the state of New York – prisons, which peaked with the so called “Rockefeller Laws”. Under those laws, in place since the 1970s, even first-time, nonviolent drug offenders were subject to 15-year sentences, and the need for more prisons became a growth industry that many small towns and villages, with economies that were decimated in the 60’s and 70’s, looked to take advantage of. Call it salvation through incarceration – a prison-based development strategy that small towns all over America have pursued, and have been changed economically and culturally because of it.
The boom came to Malone in 1986, after years of decline in the local economy. Once known as the “Star of the North” because it was a rail junction and a regional shopping magnet, the town had lost its bookstores and tailors, its professional offices and service shops. Factories were shut down or had been downsized. Local dairy farms had collapsed. Main Street, once a bustling and happening area lined with shops and restaurants, diners and greengrocers, began to be boarded up and soon fell into disrepair.
Shoppers hunting for bargains once flocked to J.J. Newberry’s on Main Street. But today, all they will find if they rub the dirt off the cracked windows is a huge empty space save for a plastic garbage pail. Newberry’s is long gone, as is the local Sears, which closed in the mid 90’s, and the dog shit caked to the walkway in front of the empty buildings seems to be almost that old. What happened to the hope and promise the prisons were supposed to bring along with them? What has been their legacy if not an increase in jobs and economic opportunity as publicized by the town officials who saw them as “redemption”? What was the point of bringing them here in the first place?
When prisons emerged as an option for Malone, Molly McKee, then president of the local Chamber of Commerce, was dismayed.
“If they said we’d get a four-year college campus, I would have loved that,” said McKee, “I thought: a prison. Ugh.”
But soon, realizing the town’s desperation, she came to see it as a “great idea.”
McKee and others were concerned that Malone not become another Dannemora. That town, about 40 miles away, grew up around the Clinton Correctional Facility. And there, towering over Dannemora’s main street, are prison walls with shotgun-toting guards standing sentry.
However prison development played out in Malone, said McKee, “We didn’t want it to define the town.”
Franklin Correctional opened in 1986, followed two years later by Bare Hill Correctional. Bare Hill houses 2,170 inmates, Franklin Correctional, 2,220. Then Upstate Correctional opened just down the road in 1999. It is a “supermax” prison that houses about 1,510 of the state’s worst disciplinary problems in double-bunk cells. These prisoners are routinely counted in the population statistics, which for Malone is 14,972 as of 2006. When the prison population of almost 5,000 is taken into consideration, that makes a difference, and also makes one question the “literacy” and “educational level” statistics. Are the prisoners counted in these statistics , as well? And does that skew those numbers?
The three prisons brought 1,600 well-paying jobs to Malone, but not necessarily to it’s residents, as anticipated. All of the construction and erection firms that built the prisons were determined before construction began, and no local firms were used. And the hoped for jobs that spurred the lobbying for the prisons to begin with? Those went to out of towners, as well. The corrections bureau has a policy of “seniority” that determines where guards are assigned jobs, and once the prisons opened and people started applying, if they were hired at all, they were immediately transferred to other “less desirable” prisons and areas to begin their career. There is a waiting list to be assigned to the Malone facilities, sometimes a wait that is up to 8 years long. Most guards on the waiting list are there because it is more attractive to be assigned to a facility here in Malone, where half of your 40K salary can purchase a nice house outright rather than be assigned to a facility like Riker’s Island, where it would take three years of that same 40K salary to even buy a down payment on a house.
With a total annual Prison payroll of about $67 million, there have been some businesses who moved to Malone after the prisons were built – most notably convenience stores, Dollar stores, pharmacies and Fast Food chains. Town Officials also think that the prisons spurred the expansion of the local hospital, which now has a dialysis unit and a cancer treatment center, and the golf course, which has doubled in size to 36 holes. And shipping thousands of prisoners to Upstate New York does accomplish what most people want from a prison, it keeps the criminals far away. Malone could not be much farther from New York City – home to 2/3 of the state’s prisoners, and still be within the state’s borders. Meanwhile, the outskirts of Malone Village resemble a full fledged penal colony.
While the town actively lobbied to get its first two prisons, the state decided unexpectedly to place the Supermax Facility here. Initially, the supermax was slated for Tupper Lake, a town 60 miles away, in the heart of the Adirondack Park. But when environmental groups protested, the state again turned to Malone. It was not altogether welcome, even by the same groups who lobbied for the first two. But while desperate officials tout the obvious and proven benefits that prison development can bring, and there are benefits to having a census population that counts incarcerated individuals – a larger population can increase Federal funding for roads, schools and municipal services, others bemoan what is being lost – the small-town life, the possibility for other kinds of development and increased debt. Malone Village, which provides water and sewage services for the prisons, has had to increasingly raise water and sewer rates to cover debt service on an expansion project undertaken to accommodate the prisons. The state was supposed to pay for the project, but that has never been realized, leaving residents to cover the debt. And the hoped for food processing plant to serve the prisons never materialized, either, and the expanded sewage treatment plant dumps increased amounts of nitrates into the Salmon River and there’s more traffic congestion on visiting days.
And the same skewed census statistics that bring more federal funds to the town based on prison population, and inflates the population count, also can bring other, more destructive statistics. Although inmates are denied the right to vote in all but two states, state lawmakers treat them as residents of the prisons when drawing legislative maps, to inflate the head count in lightly populated rural areas where prisons are typically built, such as Malone. This creates legislative districts where none would ordinarily be, shifting political influence from the heavily populated urban districts where inmates live. Politicians in districts with prisons sometimes brag openly about the windfall, as they mock “constituents” who are powerless to remove them from office and are packed onto buses and driven hundreds of miles to their real homes the minute they leave the prison walls. And counting large populations of prisoners as local residents leads to misleading conclusions about the size and growth of communities. Some counties’ reported population growth is due to the importation of prisoners to a new correctional institution. In the 1990s, an astonishing 30% of “new residents” of upstate New York were people being sent to prison. If not for the construction of new prison cells, 56 counties the Census Bureau identified as “growing” during the 1990s would have in fact reported declining populations. (For more information on this subject and the studies behind it go here)
Prisons are surely not the long-term economic answer for desperate rural towns. For Malone the dream died somewhere between the “economic miracle” of new jobs and business expansion that the prisons promised, and the still boarded up Main Street and stagnant high unemployment rate that flourish even after three prisons were built. “Once you have the reputation of a prison town, you won’t become a Fortune 500 company town, or an Internet or software company town or even a diverse tourism town,” says Ann Ruzow Holland of Friends of the North Country, a community development group that has opposed prison-building upstate.
Perhaps communities nationwide should heed the lessons of social and environmental failure from Malone’s stillborn ‘economic miracle’.
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