Town need revitalizing? Build a prison.

The 'not in my backyard' attitude is largely gone: Prisons mean jobs, infrastructure, and investment.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Mercy Tercero's Mexican restaurant in Buckeye, Ariz., used to be a modest, family-run affair. But when the town's population of 5,700 suddenly doubled last December, business took off, forcing Ms. Tercero to find more cooks and waiters.

The reason: A new state prison - the second largest in Arizona - opened just 10 miles east of town. The facility has transformed tiny Buckeye, bringing with it a new movie theater, a drive-in, and soon a $2.5 million swimming complex.

"Before, the town was in a standstill - there was no growth, no new business," says Tercero. "The prison has brought new people, different ideas, and jobs. It has had a very good effect on the town."

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The largest prison building boom in US history is proving to be a boon to many small towns across the country.

From New York to California, billions of dollars have been put into bricks, bars, and concertina wire in the past 20 years as the number of federal, state, and city-run penitentaries has soared.

Many of them have been located in rural areas like Buckeye. While many towns have traditionally fought the presence of prisons in their backyard - and some local residents still do - a growing number now see them as a way to revitalize their communities.

High unemployment rates have reduced much of the reticence in rural America. Indeed, prisons are now often synonymous with job opportunities, new infrastructures, and investment.

"Twenty years ago, local officials would resist having a prison built in their area. Now they are begging," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. "In rural areas, where the economy is often dried up and with little other sources of employment, a prison becomes a guaranteed source of revenue."

In 1985, there were only 426 state-run prisons like the one in Buckeye. Thirteen years later, the figure exceeded 1,378, according to the American Correctional Association. The increase in prison building has been matched by a steady surge in state and federal prison populations, from 195,000 in 1970 to 1.2 million in 1998. America's rate of incarceration of 672 per 100,000 people is the second highest reported rate in the world, behind only Russia's rate of 685.

This increase is largely the result of tougher state and federal laws, which have criminalized some offenses that would not have led to jail before. Similarly, the 1994 federal crime bill reduced the opportunity for parole and lengthened the time served by inmates.

Most of the penitentiaries built to meet this growing demand are in rural areas, where land is cheaper and more widely available. Sixty-nine of the 95 federal detention facilities in the country today are located in towns of fewer than 40,000 inhabitants, for example.

But because of the various benefits a prison can bring to an economically depressed area, the siting of correctional facilities has suddenly become a hotly contested issue.

Some critics have argued that there is a political motive behind many of these new construction projects. For example, 40 of the 41 New York state prisons built in the past 20 years are in rural upstate Republican Senate districts, according to a paper published this week by the City Project, a public-policy group. Twenty-six of them have been located in the districts of the three most influential Republican state senators, the report shows.

A prison that generates employment for a local community can serve as a key tool for reelection, says Robert Gangi, co-author of the paper. Most prisons have been constructed in predominantly white areas, sometimes hundreds of miles away from cities, even though studies show that the vast majority of inmates come from urban areas - which might benefit from having the correctional facility built nearby.

"The report shows the interplay between economic need and political influence, and the dark underbelly of this practice," Mr. Gangi says.

But for a town like Buckeye, the building of a state prison has been a blessing. Buckeye's mayor, Dustin Hull, estimates that the penitentiary will eventually bring 2,000 new jobs.

Mayor Hull also hopes to welcome the inmates' families with new hotels. He is upgrading and beefing up the police force in anticipation of the surge in population. The number of officers is expected to jump from 30 to 70 within two years.

In the larger context, the prison will have a direct impact on money the town gets from the state. In the Census, inmates are counted like residents. Buckeye will receive $600 per inmate every year. When at the full capacity of 4,150 inmates, the prison will bring in an estimated $1.6 million annually in subsidies.

Yet at the moment, the prison, which is not even one-quarter full yet, is already understaffed - which is slowing down its expansion. Local officials are attending job fairs, offering cheap rent and modern facilities to attract new personnel.

"The more guards there are, the more inmates they will have, and the more funding we will get," Hull says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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