The Prison-Industrial Complex

Correctional officials see danger in prison overcrowding. Others see opportunity. The nearly two million Americans behind bars—the majority of them nonviolent offenders—mean jobs for depressed regions and windfalls for profiteers
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By using an unorthodox means of financing prison construction, Mario Cuomo turned the Urban Development Corporation into a rural development corporation that invested billions of dollars in upstate New York. Although roughly 80 percent of the state's inmates came from New York City and its suburbs, high real-estate prices and opposition from community groups made it difficult to build correctional facilities there. Cuomo needed somewhere to put his new prisons; he formed a close working relationship with the state senator Ronald B. Stafford, a conservative Republican whose rural, Adirondack district included six counties extending from Lake George to the Canadian border. "Any time there's an extra prison," a Cuomo appointee told Newsdayin 1990, "Ron Stafford will take it."

Stafford had represented this district, known as the North Country, for more than two decades. Orphaned as a child, he had been adopted by a family in the upstate town of Dannemora. The main street of the town was dominated by the massive stone wall around Clinton, a notorious maximum-security prison. His adoptive father was a correctional officer at Clinton, and Stafford spent much of his childhood within the prison's walls. He developed great respect for correctional officers, and viewed their profession as an honorable one; he believed that prisons could give his district a real economic boost. Towns in the North Country soon competed with one another to attract new prisons. The Republican Party controlled the state senate, and prison construction became part of the political give and take with the Cuomo administration. Of the twenty-nine correctional facilities authorized during the Cuomo years, twenty-eight were built in upstate districts represented by Republican senators.

When most people think of New York, they picture Manhattan. In fact, two thirds of the state's counties are classified as rural. Perhaps no other region in the United States has so wide a gulf between its urban and rural populations. People in the North Country—which includes the Adirondack State Park, one of the nation's largest wilderness areas—tend to be politically conservative, taciturn, fond of the outdoors, and white. New York City and the North Country have very little in common. One thing they do share, however, is a high rate of poverty.

Twenty-five years ago the North Country had two prisons; now it has eighteen correctional facilities, and a nineteenth is under construction. They run the gamut from maximum-security prisons to drug-treatment centers and boot camps. One of the first new facilities to open was Ray Brook, a federal prison that occupies the former Olympic Village at Lake Placid. Other prisons have opened in abandoned factories and sanatoriums. For the most part North Country prisons are tucked away, hidden by trees, nearly invisible amid the vastness and beauty of the Adirondacks. But they have brought profound change. Roughly one out of every twenty people in the North Country is a prisoner. The town of Dannemora now has more inmates than inhabitants.

The traditional anchors of the North Country economy—mining, logging, dairy farms, and manufacturing—have been in decline for years. Tourism flourishes in most towns during the summer months. According to Ram Chugh, the director of the Rural Services Institute at the State University of New York at Potsdam, the North Country's per capita income has long been about 40 percent lower than the state's average per capita income. The prison boom has provided a huge infusion of state money to an economically depressed region—one of the largest direct investments the state has ever made there. In addition to the more than $1.5 billion spent to build correctional facilities, the prisons now bring the North Country about $425 million in annual payroll and operating expenditures. That represents an annual subsidy to the region of more than $1,000 per person. The economic impact of the prisons extends beyond the wages they pay and the local services they buy. Prisons are labor-intensive institutions, offering year-round employment. They are recession-proof, usually expanding in size during hard times. And they are nonpolluting—an important consideration in rural areas where other forms of development are often blocked by environmentalists. Prisons have brought a stable, steady income to a region long accustomed to a highly seasonal, uncertain economy.

Anne Mackinnon, who grew up in the North Country and wrote about its recent emergence as New York's "Siberia" for Adirondack Life magazine, says the prison boom has had an enormous effect on the local culture. Just about everyone now seems to have at least one relative who works in corrections. Prison jobs have slowed the exodus from small towns, by allowing young people to remain in the area. The average salary of a correctional officer in New York State is about $36,000—more than 50 percent higher than the typical salary in the North Country. The job brings health benefits and a pension. Working as a correctional officer is one of the few ways that men and women without college degrees can enjoy a solid middle-class life there. Although prison jobs are stressful and dangerous, they are viewed as a means of preserving local communities. So many North Country residents have become correctional officers over the past decade that those just starting out must work for years in prisons downstate, patiently waiting for a job opening at one of the facilities in the Adirondacks.

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A contributor to The Atlantic since 1994, Eric Schlosser is the author of Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness, and Chew On This. He has also written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and others.

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