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Can a terror prison spark a boom?

US Officials say a prison for ‘Gitmo’ detainees will boost rural Thomson, Ill. Don’t count on it.

By Richard MertensCorrespondent / March 15, 2010

A prison in Carroll County, Ill., could house federal detainees. Local residents hope it would boost the economy, but studies throw doubt on that outcome.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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It’s a familiar story: Faced with shuttered businesses, dying downtowns, and consolidated schools, rural communities across America grab the chance to host a new enterprise, maybe a meatpacking factory or a landfill. In Thomson, Ill., it’s a local prison revamped to house terror suspects from Guantánamo Bay and other federal prisoners.

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Hopes are high that the proposed facility will turn Thomson’s fortunes around. “We need to be safe, we need to give people hope, we need to give people opportunities to keep their families here,” says Jerry “Duke” Hebeler, village president. “This is our shot to do all three.”

The Obama administration is equally upbeat. Under federal management, the Thomson prison would create as many as 2,960 jobs and “local residents will be excellent candidates” for half of them, says a report by the president’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). It predicts that the county unemployment rate, 12.1 percent in December, could fall by as much as four percentage points.

But such predictions are almost always overstated, the hoped-for benefits mostly illusory, say researchers who have studied the economics of rural prisons. Studies over the past decade conclude that prisons have done little to change the economic realities of rural communities.

“Most of the communities that I’ve talked to have been somewhat disappointed after they see what happens,” says Thomas Johnson, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “They don’t think it’s a mistake. But they don’t find the economic benefits that were suggested.”

In some circumstances, research suggests, prisons have actually done harm.

“The towns that get prisons, especially the most desperate communities, tend to be worse off,” says Gregory Hooks, a sociology professor at Washington State University and author of two studies of rural prisons. “That was a surprise.”

Mr. Hooks and other researchers have used census data to compare rural counties with and without prisons. These studies show that prisons fail to increase total employment, raise incomes, or reduce poverty. It’s not clear why. One reason may be that local people get relatively few prison jobs because they lack the skills and qualifications needed to work as guards or administrative staff. Researchers also speculate that prisons may displace other economic activity.

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