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Williams Sonoma State University Prisons Communities and Economics in Rural America 2010

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The Big House in a Small Town:
Prisons, Communities, and Economics in Rural America

Eric J. Williams
Assistant Professor
Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies
Sonoma State University
eric.williams@sonoma.edu

Prepared for presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science
Association
San Francisco, CA (April 2010)

Please do not cite without permission from the author

In studying this subject we must be content if we attain as high a degree of
certainty as the matter of it admits…It is a mark of the educated man and a proof of his
culture that in every subject he looks for only so much precision as its nature permits.
Aristotle
Nicomachean Ethics

INTRODUCTION:
In discussing criticisms of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis,
Elinor Ostrum states that “Colleagues in political science have frequently chided us for
the many studies we have conducted on ‘dull, unimportant local problems.’”1 It is
exactly one of these so called “dull, unimportant local problems”- the impact of a prison
on a local community- that is at the heart of this paper. This paper is about the nuts and
bolts of local politics, something not studied enough in our discipline. As Ostrum further
points out, “[i]f one confines political science to the study of national elections, national
legislative behavior, and the politics of the presidency, we are missing a great deal at both
a local and international level.” Much like his criticism that studies of judicial behavior
primarily focus on the Supreme Court (which only hears about 1% of those cases that are
appealed to it), we must heed Martin Shapiro’s advice in the seminal work Courts and go
broader and deeper in all areas of political science. It is in this spirit that this study was
undertaken. How a prison impacts a local community is one of those areas which should
not be missed and needs to be studied in a broad and deep way.
We are fast approaching the point where 1% of our population is in custody2 and
the number of people incarcerated has more than quadrupled since 1980, leaving both the
states and the federal government desperate for more prison beds.3 A study by the Urban
Institute found that in the last quarter of the 20th century, “The rise in the number of
prisons has been extraordinary…state prison systems grew from 592 prisons to 1023
prisons.”4 Many of these prisons have been built in communities that historically have
not had them. The Urban Institute’s study of ten states found that the number of counties
with at least one prison had increased from 13 percent of counties in 1979 to 31 percent
of counties in 2000.5 The spread of prisons and booming prison population makes what
was once a highly localized issue, more national in character.
This prison building boom in the 1980’s and 1990’s has given birth to an
interesting phenomenon; whereas towns used to fight against having a prison located in
their community, they are now fighting to land one. Considered foremost on the list of
NIMBY’s (not in my backyard) or LULU’s (local unwanted land use) just fifteen years
ago, towns are now lobbying to have states, private corporations and the federal
government put new correctional institutions in their communities. Rural communities
1

P.S. January 2006 p. 9
According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, 2,166,260 people were incarcerated at the end of 2001, about
1 in every 143 people or about 0.7% of the total population. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/p02.pdf.
If one includes those on probation and parole, 1 in every 32 adults or 3.1% of the population is under some
form of criminal justice custody. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/press/ppus02pr.htm.
3
In 1980, the total prison and jail population combined was 503,586
http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance/tables/corr2tab.htm.
4
Lawrence and Travis, p. 8
5
Their study looked at the ten states with the largest growth in the numbers of prisons in the 80’s and 90’s.
2

look at prisons as a sound economic development strategy; a stable recession-proof
industry that promises secure jobs and a new economic base. Because of this, States can
now be more discriminating in deciding where they will locate the prison, leading to
bidding wars between towns who offer substantial incentive packages for the privilege of
becoming home to society’s outcasts.
But the effect of prisons on a community is broad, effecting governmental and
social relations in addition to economic ones. Erving Goffman has called prisons a “total
institution,” meaning that in sociological terms, they function as a world onto their own
(Goffman 1961). They may be total, but they do not exist in a vacuum. They are on land
within a municipality and how these two seemingly independent entities work-or don’t
work- together has large repercussions for the people who work in the facility as well as
the overall community. In gauging the effects of a prison on a community, one can look
at hard economic or survey data, but I have chosen to use a more qualitative method, that
of the ethnography.
In 1991 The Humboldt Journal of Social Relations dedicated an entire year to the
problems involved with community opposition to prison siting and in 1992, Crime and
Delinquency devoted an entire issue to the same problem. But now, all of that has
changed and the NIMBY model is no longer dominant as towns now go to extraordinary
lengths to land a prison. After the end of the oil boom left their economy in shambles,
Hinton, Oklahoma actually borrowed $19 million from American Express to build a
prison and then hired a private prison firm to run it. In Tamms, Illinois, the staunchly
democratic town has a billboard thanking Republican Governor Ryan for putting the
states newest supermax prison there.6 In Stone Gap, Virginia the town paid the local
community college to start a guard-training program and sent 500 people to Richmond
for the committee hearings on the siting to help them land one of the states two new
supermaxes.
Places as disparate as Lovelock, Nevada, a former ranching town, and Corcoran
California, a former agricultural stronghold, have turned to prisons as the solution to their
economic woes. From the town’s standpoint, it’s a growth industry that is recession
proof and will give them a number of decent paying jobs as well as some ancillary
industrial growth. The town’s may or may not realize actual growth, but there is much
more to the story. Understanding what actually happens during and after the siting is at
the core of this paper.
This paper focuses on two towns, Beeville, Texas and Florence Colorado. Both
are small rural communities who began the lobbying process in the late 1980’s. Beeville
had fallen on hard economic times with the decline of the Texas oil boom and Florence,
though never an economic hot spot, lost a significant number of jobs and residents with
the decline of the mining industry. Both communities lobbied hard land a facility,
Beeville from the Texas Department of Corrections and Florence from the Federal
Bureau of Prisons and both have since become the site of multiple facilities. They are
both good examples of the new rural prison towns that have cropped up in the past 25
years.
Prison Impact Studies:
6

This was before then governor Ryan was indicted and commuted every death row inmates’ sentence to
life.

There has been some interest in the effects a prison has on communities and a
smattering of studies on the topic through the years. Most are highly focused studies,
looking only at one issue or one community. The studies can be roughly grouped into
three categories. The first group concerns itself with classic prison NIMBY concerns,
and as such look at communities perceptions of the effects of the prisons in their midst.
These studies sometimes discuss the economic effects, but do so asking the old style
questions (such as the effect of a prison on land values).
The second category is almost non-existent, but does exist. These studies are
more broad-based, looking at one community over a whole series of issues or, in the case
of one study, a more in-depth comparison of two communities in the same state. These
studies begin to struggle with the issues in a more comprehensive manner and give us a
fuller picture of the impact of a prison on a small rural community. In the third category,
we see the recognition of the change and they have begun to recognize that given the new
reality, new questions need to be asked. These studies focus on the types of gains that
prisons promise and local communities hope to get rather than the negatives that locals
fear from a prison.
Studies of social perceptions in new prison towns are not common, but do exist
(Maxim 1983, Krause 1991, Farrington 1992, McShane and Williams 1992, Carlson
1992, Swanson 1993, Boester 2000). These studies look at how the community views the
effects of the prison on the town and often use survey to show how the perceptions
compare with reality. These surveys tend to ask questions very much in the NIMBY
tradition; questions about perceptions of crime rates, safety and land values. Some deal
with the perception of the effects of outsiders on the new community. Most of them
show that the perceptions and fears that residents have often do not match what is really
happening in their towns. Fear of escapes and riots are common, but the studies often
show two overarching fears; the influx of new people in the community and how the
outside world will perceive the town after the prisons are opened. The first fear has two
subsets; the fear of inmate families moving to the area to be closer to the inmates and the
effect that correctional officers will have on the community. Although no studies show a
significant amount of inmate families moving to the communities, this fear of the
“outsider” is still prevalent.7 Interestingly, it is often the Corrections Officers who move
to a community to work in the prison that become the real outsiders, not the inmates or
their families.
The second major fear- that the town will be universally viewed as a prison townis perhaps the biggest downside to using prisons as an economic development strategy as
far as many citizens are concerned. These towns are often ambivalent about the prospect
of becoming a “prison town.”8 Locals feel that it will be harder to bring in other

7

Most states have several prisons in different areas of the state and will move inmates almost at will,
making moving to the area where a relative is incarcerated somewhat futile, as they could be moved at any
time. A former top official in the Colorado DOC told me that they refer to this practice of moving inmates
before they can become settled as “doing life on a bus.”
8
As an odd side note, as a part of its curriculum, Head Start teaches about the major industry in the county.
In both counties that I studied, Head Start teaches kids about industries other than the prisons despite the
fact that the corrections industry is by far the largest employer in both places.

businesses to diversify the economy, but understand that there were few other options
available to them.9
Although these studies bring up some interesting concerns, they seem stuck in
another time. Although local residents have concerns about the impact of prisons on their
communities, we need to turn these sorts of questions around in this new reality. These
questions assume that the residents have perceptions about NIMBY concerns, but
NIMBY assumes public disapproval. Expectations have changed and the questions need
to mirror the kinds of expectations communities now have. Instead of seeking to find
out if the negative concerns have come to pass, we need to find out if the positive
expectations have been realized.
There were also a small number of economic studies done in the past which still
have some relevance. They tended to focus on property values and per capita income, the classic NIMBY concerns. (Lofting and Parks 1986, Abrams and Lyons 1987, Seidel
and Chastain 1988, Parks 1990, Harris and Stoddard 1993, Avidon 1998, Burke 2001).
These studies have a bit of a mixed bag of results, but most have found some modest
boost in the economy for prison towns.10
The second category are those few studies that try to look at this issue from every
angle. Two studies stand out since they cover many different aspects of prison impact,
Katherine Carlson’s 1990 study of Clallam Bay, Washington and Jeanne Theis’s 1998
dissertation on Potosi, Missouri (Carlson 1990, Theis 1998). Both studies use multiple
methodologies, giving a fuller picture of the overall effects of a prison on a community.
Carlson especially avoids many methodological problems by beginning her study during
the siting process and gauging both what the community thought the effect would be and
what it actually was. Carlson study is dated by the new realities in prison siting since
Clallam Bay had opposed the prison, in part, and certainly did not give the state the types
of incentives that towns now offer. Also, having only one case gives us little in the way
of comparison to other communities.
What Carlson does well is to begin to lead us in the proper direction. Mary Theis
begins to pick up where she left off. Theis’s work on Potosi is more recent and covers a
town that did lobby the state of Missouri to locate their new supermax prison there.
Theis uses multiple methodologies, using hard economic and social data mixed in with
survey data with a few follow up interviews with members of the community. She found
that Potosi had not reaped the economic benefit they had hoped for since poverty levels
rose in the county since the prison opened (Theis, 1998, 106).11 She also found that there
was a rise in the crime rate, although she doesn’t control for crimes committed inside the
prison (149). But perhaps her most interesting findings are in her survey data, which
show concerns among residents about inmate families moving to the area, despite
evidence that this hasn’t occurred (162) or released inmates remaining in the community,
despite Missouri’s policy of releasing offenders back to the community in which they
9

The former mayor of Cañon City, Colorado put it to me this way, “We don’t have enough water to bring
in a brewery and IBM ain’t exactly knocking on the door. What else were we supposed to do?”
10
There seems to be a lot of disagreement among economists as to how to measure local economic growth
in a way that distinguishes is from the economy both statewide and nationally. In fact, several scholars
(Fiecock-get cite) argue that this is impossible to do.
11
Her conclusion is odd, however, since unemployment rates were better than the state as a whole and per
capita income rose steadily in the county, even when it remained stable statewide.

were sentenced (172). She failed to ask about the perceived effect of correctional officers
and their families on the community, so we know nothing about this.
Although Theis’s study is of a town that fits the new prison town model, she falls
back on a classic NIMBY-type study, focusing on issues that past studies have shown to
be problematic in siting correctional facilities. Although some of these concerns are still
valid, the game has changed. Prisons are no longer a NIMBY for communities, but often
are just like any other industrial economic development strategy, the social impact of
which goes deeper than survey data can begin to understand.
Of late several conference papers, dissertations and institute reports have been
written on the economic impact of prisons on communities and have begun to see that
there is a new reality in the prison siting game. They attempt to see if prisons live up to
their promise, whether focusing on sales tax revenue (BOE 2000, Chuang 1998), jobs
(Huling 2002, King, Mauer and Huling 2003, Besser and Hanson 2003, Hooks et al
2004), political clout (Wood, 2003, Wagner, 2002) or a somewhat more general look at
winners and losers in this game. Like the earlier studies, the results seem to be mixed.
One report, contracted by the California Department of Corrections shows evidence that,
at least in California, those communities that benefit most are smaller (under 15,000
population) and very rural (more than 100 miles from the nearest metropolitan area).12 It
is the only study done that shows a significant economic impact of prisons on a town.
Most of the studies seem to show some small economic benefit, depending on
what factors they are specifically looking at. One study, however, finds that just the
opposite is true. Hooks et. al. undertook a study of employment and carcerial expansion
in counties across the U.S. (Hooks et. al. 2004). The paper is a longitudinal study of both
old and new prison communities and seeks to understand the impact on growth using
public, private and total employment growth. They find that prisons do not stimulate
overall growth, and, in fact, they actually impede it (49-50). They also point to the
mounting evidence that in general, state and local initiatives rarely have a significant
impact on growth (51).
Despite evidence to the contrary, towns continue to hold out hope that prison will
be their economic salvation. As odd as it may seem, we need to begin to understand that
the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is to Beeville Texas what Microsoft is to
Redmond Washington- It is the biggest employer in town as well as the town’s economic
heart and soul. As such, it is important to find out what exactly is different about having
a prison serve in this capacity. It seems doubtful that IBM asks to borrow the town of
Poughkeepsie’s drug dogs or use its riot gear when employees get out of hand, but prison
towns do get these types of calls from the institutions in their midst. Additionally, the
sales force is unlikely to flood the local courts with civil suits and corporate employees
don’t usually form gangs to take out reprisals on the customers. But these are just the
types of problems that the new prison town has to deal with and the relationship between
the prison and the local community determines how smoothly incidents like the one
described above are worked out.
Moving In, Walking, and Talking: Gathering Information

12

http://www.boe.ca.gov/pdf/prisonimpactstudy.pdf

Warden Joe Gunja is a tall, thin man whose glasses seem reluctant to intrude on
his chiseled, soldier’s features. He was a military policeman before becoming a
corrections officer (CO) at the United States Penitentiary (USP) at Leavenworth. He
worked his way up through the federal corrections system, did two more “tours” at
Leavenworth, moved through Texas and was promoted to his first Warden position in
Cumberland, Maryland. He arrived at USP-Florence after the so-called “cowboy scandal”
in which a group of corrections officers, calling themselves The Cowboys, was indicted
for abusing inmates. Gunja is a fixer; a man brought in to clean up problems in a facility.
Soon after our interview he was promoted to a regional directorship for the Bureau of
Prisons.
When we discussed the economic impact the prison had on the local community, I
thought perhaps he would mention unemployment rates, the number of new residents in
the town where his prison is situated, or something along those lines, but I was mistaken.
“[T]hat Texaco on the corner of highways 67 and 115 must make a killing. I stop there all
of the time on my way home,” is the only reference he made (J. Gunja, personal
communication, July, 2003). Other than that, he sees little change brought by the prison.
He says that very few prison employees live in Florence and the prison does not buy
many goods from local businesses.
In talking to the director of the local chamber of commerce, Darrel Lindsay, one
gets a completely different perspective. Lindsey says that the Federal Correctional
Complex at Florence
literally revived a town that was doomed to be a ghost town. We had 2700
people here when the prison decided to come. Our population has doubled.
Our water and sewer plants were given badly needed upgrades; probably
ten new businesses opened and four new subdivisions have been or are
being built. Thirty-eight percent of the federal employees live in Fremont
County. And with the new Summa subdivision and golf course, we expect
that number to go up. It’s almost like it’s too good to be true (D. Lindsay,
personal communication, July, 2003).
From Darrel Lindsay’s perspective the prisons are almost too good to be true. He,
perhaps more than anyone in town has benefited from them. Two of his children work
for the Bureau of Prisons and he has appeared on the TLC television network when they
came to town to do a special on the prisons there.
The incongruity is understandable, because both men are correct. Lindsay is
correct in pointing out the population gains and the new businesses in the community, but
these growth indicators could just as easily be attributed to the push the community has
made to become a tourist destination (most of the new businesses are kitschy antique
stores). Gunja is correct in pointing out that the Texaco station does seem to be thriving
due to commuter traffic, and that most prison employees do not live in Florence proper.
I encounter a similar problem when I ask the Warden how he feels about the
locals and their view of Bureau of Prisons employees. I tell him that many community
members discuss the federal employees as being generally clannish and unfriendly.
Warden Gunja claims he has had the opposite experience: He doesn’t feel fully
welcomed in the community, and his son feels like people were very wary of him when
he started in the local high school.

Both men are looking at a similar issue from different perspectives, that of a
Warden of a large federal prison and that of a local business leader. Both perspectives are
important and getting this variety of subjective perspectives is what drives the findings in
this book. This book seeks to understand this new phenomenon in order to discover some
of the issues that arise through participant observation. There is a long and rich history of
this type of “soaking and poking” in Political Science and this work is no different.13
This research “on the ground” led to the more formal interviews with governmental
leaders, prison officials and police personnel.
This section will outline the methodology and framework used in this book. In it,
I briefly outline some of the major epistemological debates in qualitative research and
justify my use of participant-observation to understand the issues in these two postNIMBY prison towns. This book is, at its core, a work of legal ethnography, where the
researcher looks at the relationship between legal institutions and the community in
which they reside by immersing himself in the culture of that community and I will
discuss the steps I took to do so. In that discussion will be a brief history of the legal
ethnography. I argue that this study can be distinguished from other legal ethnographies
in its broadening of the classic understanding of the law to include criminal justice
institutions.
RESEARCH METHOD:
In their seminal work, Designing Social Inquiry, King, Keohane and Verba
outline how they believe qualitative research must change in order to live up to the
methodological rigor they desire (1994). Their basic argument is that qualitative research
needs to become more like quantitative research, with its dependence on the scientific
method and hypothesis testing.14 Their argument, although meticulous and important,
questions much of what is best about qualitative research in the first place. As Gerardo
Munck points out: “Qualitative methodologists ... point to opportunities to move beyond
strict hypothesis testing by engaging in an ongoing refinement of concepts, the iterated
fine tuning of hypotheses, and the use of specifically targeted case studies that appear
likely to suggest new hypotheses and theoretical ideas (in Brady and Collier eds. (2004),
p. 119).” This process of exploratory qualitative research, leading to hypothesis and
theory generation adds to our understanding of issues that either have not been the subject
of much academic interest or discuss an issue that has fundamentally changed in some
way.
The topic of this study is of the second kind. Despite the fact that the literature
recognizes a fundamental shift from “prisons as NIMBY” (Not In My Backyard) to
“prisons as economic savior,” recent studies still fall back on the same hypotheses and
theories as before, mainly by narrowly focusing on economic indicators or survey data on
social perceptions (Huling, 2002; King, Mauer and Huling, 2003; Wood, 2003, Besser
and Hanson, 2003; Hooks et. al. 2004). They serve an important function in studying
13

In his seminal work Home Styles, Richard Fenno argued that, “[r]esearch based on participant
observation is likely to have an exploratory emphasis (1977, p.).” This work draws on a long tradition in
political science that, although most famously done by Fenno has many denizens especially those who
study law, courts and criminal justice (see Casper, 1972; Heumann, 1977; Wilson, 1968; Engel, 1986,
1994; Lin 2000).
14
See Collier and Brady, Rethinking Social Inquiry (2004) for a more complete summary and critique of
the DSI.

economic indicators and citizen attitudes, but miss some fundamental changes that have
occurred on the ground. Even when those studies include more qualitative elements
seem to fall back on interview questions informed more by works of the past than issues
of the present (Theis 1998; Belk 2006).
Interpretive socio-legal studies like this one do not fit comfortably into a single
departmental or subfield oriented models, but embrace the interdisciplinarity of groups
such as the Law and Society Association and others in the growing “Law and…”
movement. As Renalto Rosoldo argues, “Interdisciplitarity … often embodies research
agendas and intellectual currents at odds with work done within conventional disciplinebased paradigms of research (in Scott and Keats, eds. (2001), p. 67).” An ethnographic
study, undertaken by a political scientist on a subject that has been mainly the province of
the criminology world, is just that type of work.
Legal ethnographies, specifically, attempt to understand the culture of the
community’s relationship with some aspect of law through the perspective presented by
the actors themselves. Ethnographic work is interested in collecting a different type of
data than other methodologies for a different purpose. As John Flood argues,
This is not to say that ethnography cannot produce systematic results, but
it is not overly concerned with questions of validity and reliability in the
conventional way, say, that quantitative approaches are. The research
process for ethnography is different from others: it is tentative, multitextured, open-ended and discursive. It starts from a point of learning and
enquiry that recognises we know little rather than supposing a state of
knowledge which is subject to ex post facto ratification (in Banker and
Travers, eds. (2005), p. 34).
This research recognizes that there is a “state of knowledge” about these new prison
towns, while arguing that the state of knowledge is incomplete. Other than the economic
impact studies, we indeed “know little” about this subject, making it ripe for a more
interpretive research method and “thick description” in order to add to our base of
knowledge for future work (Geertz, 1977).
The distinction between “classic” ethnographic work, like that of Geertz, and
“legal” ethnographic work is mainly a question of focus. While cultural ethnographic
work tends to be more generalized,15 the legal ethnography has a more specified purpose.
This mode of research is certainly not a new undertaking (Malinowski, 1926; Llewelyn
and Hoebel, 1941; Bohannan, 1957; Gluckman, 1955, 1965), but in its early incarnation,
most legal anthropologists kept their focus abroad. This began to change in the 80’s and
90’s, with the rise of the Law and Society movement, which allowed for legal scholars to
look for new ways to understand the effects of law on communities and cultures and a
forum in which to discuss different methodological strategies. During this time, several
scholars conducted ethnographic studies in the United States (Merry, 1990; Conley and

15

Much of recent ethnographic work tends to be more focused than the more grand ethnographies of the
past, so perhaps legal ethnographies are just a further sectioning off of knowledge. This seems to be the
general trend in the social sciences and humanities as a whole, with the larger more broadly minded studies
of the 70’s being replaced by more and more specificity and specialty.

O’Barr, 1990; Engel, 1984; Yngvesson, 1993; Greenhouse, 1986; Nader, 1993).
However, the focus of the field remained abroad (Moore, 2001).
Legal ethnographies generally, especially those done in this county, study the
individual or the community’s relationship to “the law.” They attempt to understand how
people, through their own lens and narrative descriptions, use (or even view) the law in
their lives. In this research, however, “the law” is fairly narrowly defined and usually
related to courts (O’Barr and Connely, 1990; Nader, 1993; Greenhouse, Engel and
Yngvesson, 1994). Although no scholars explicitly argue that the civil legal system is an
exhaustive notion of what law entails, their specific focus implicitly ignores other legal
institutions and their relationship to the community. As Greenhouse argues, “along with
other legal ethnographers, we felt compelled to reorient our comparative questions
around specific problematic aspects of the state of norms and institutions in everyday life
(p. 9).” In theory, this may well be true, but the focus of most legal ethnographers
remains in the civil courts and on civil litigation. The institutions involved in the criminal
justice system, especially cops and corrections, if you’ll excuse the alliteration, are also
legal institutions. The last of these, corrections, is rarely treated as a legal institution, and
even more rarely as a political one.16 I argue that it is both.
By looking at prisons as a political institution, we can look at institutional
relationships, rather than treating prisons as what Erving Goffman has termed a “total
institution (1961),” a closed society that needs little from the institutions that surround it.
Although this may have been true in the past, the shifting nature of prisons in our society
as well as the booming prison population has brought prisons more into the light of day.
They have become political entities and have developed institutional relationships
(Bright, 1996).
In recognizing this shift, this work begins to give a more complete understanding
of the new prison towns by looking into areas that other scholars have overlooked. It is
exploratory and seeks to go beyond what can be understood by surveys or interview data
alone. However, there is significant interview data in my research. I conducted 62
formal interviews with local governmental officials and prison managers as well as local
business and educational leaders. But this research went beyond just the formal interview
process. I conducted over 100 informal interviews with community residents and prison
employees. I attended city council meetings, community relations board meetings and
local economic development corporation meetings. I spent time in six local prisons. I
essentially sought to immerse myself in the two towns in my study.
In order to facilitate this immersion into the community, I purchased a 19-foot
travel-trailer which became my home for over a year. I spent six months living in a
trailer park on the outskirts of Beeville and eight months over two summers living in
Florence. This experience gave me insights and experiences that I might not have
enjoyed had I stayed in a hotel or just visited in short stints. As I walked my dog through
the trailer park and town, I would start conversations with local community members and
these informal “interviews” led to a wealth of information. The respondents invariably
asked what I was doing in their community, which I used as my opening to begin to ask
questions. I would answer that I was studying the relationship between the prison and the
16

Charles Bright’s, The Power to Punish (1996) is one exception to this. There has been ethnographic work
done inside prisons (Sykes, 1958; Jacobs, 1977; Fleischer, 1986), but of these works, only Jacobs sees the
importance of linking the prison with the outside world.

town, but I quickly learned that the terms “book” or even “thesis” were met with blank
stares, so I switched to stating that I was writing a book about the subject.17
This opener led in many different directions. I always brought up three issues:
first, the effect the prison has had, second, the relationship between the town and prison
and third, what specifically had changed, but otherwise was willing to let the
conversations wander in a variety of directions. I never took notes during these sessions
for one major reason: I very quickly noticed how nervous it made people. My goal was
to make these meetings as informal as possible and note taking was not conducive to this.
Given this, I directly quote very few people with whom I had informal interviews.18 I
feel that what was lost by this method is far outweighed by the amount of “insider”
information I was given along the way, whether it was the teen that showed me how to
pick out the trailers where methamphetamines were being cooked by feeling for heat or
the ex-inmate who told me about living under supermax conditions in a Texas prison.
Although information like this may appear to be tangential to my study, allowing the
residents of these communities to let me into their lives in whatever way they wished
helped me to gain a better understanding of life there.
In this spirit, I spent endless mornings in local coffee shops and spent afternoons
in the mayor of Beeville’s barber shop. I watched the Saturday night ritual of “cruising”
in Florence and talked to the teenagers who drove endlessly around Main Street that
night. I had a parolee point out what businesses he claimed were selling drugs out of the
back door and even taught a class at a local community college. I spent several days
shadowing the Bee County Sheriff as he went about his routine. In other words, I tried to
understand the fabric of these towns and, as much as possible, become an insider.
This process is not simple or easy. As John Flood argues, “[E]thnography presents
a unique set of problems for the researcher, in part because it is a messy process. There
are problems of entry, developing trust and empathy, recording interaction, and making
sense of ethnographic data (p. 40).” In my research, “problems of entry” were solved by
an informal strategy. For example, gaining access to prisons is not an easy task 19 and I
went through informal channels, rather than formal ones, using people I met and
interviewed along the way to gain access to prison officials.20 I was surprised by how
much access I was given at times and how easy it was, especially in Texas.21 I found
that, for me, introducing myself to local officials and community members in person at

17

We’ll hope this turns out to be true
Several scholars have discussed the accuracy of their notes when taken after an interview and their use of
quotations despite the time lag between comments being made and recorded (Fenno, 1977; Lin, 2000). I
was not as comfortable with my own memory, so I chose not to use direct quotations in many cases.
19
For various descriptions of how scholars get access to prison systems, see DiIulio 1986, Jacobs 1977,
Fleischer 1989, Lin 2000
20
At one point, I tried to go through official channels to gain access to prison employees in Arizona. I
wasn’t denied access, per se, but was completely ignored, even when I showed up at the Arizona’s
Department of Corrections in Phoenix.
21
I believe that Texas’s historical battles with the courts helped me in this regard, since monitors often
inspected the units. I was told by several corrections officers that they had elaborate warning system in
order to notify each other of these monitors presence. They used a series of code words on the two way
radios all officers carry to warn of their arrival in a specific area. They use a similar system to warn each
other of an approaching prison administrator. I can only assume that they warned each other when I was
coming as well.
18

meetings or even in coffee shops was more effective than any other way of gaining
access.
I followed a similar procedure in each community to begin the process. Before I
“hit the road” I gathered as much information as I could about the local prisons, but tried
to learn very little about the town itself beyond the basics of how they fit into my study. I
wanted, as much as possible, to learn about the town from the people who lived there.
My first stop, after setting up at the trailer park, was the local library.22 Neither town’s
local newspaper was easily accessible from elsewhere, so this was my first priority; to put
together a history of the prisons in town from a local perspective and the process through
which they were sited.23 I used these newspapers as my first glimpse into the history I
would later get from the people in the town.
My second stop was the local community college. In Florence, I did this solely to
get internet access (my trailer was not exactly wired for e-mail), but found that the
employees there were a good resource. After that I went about getting to know the
community and its residents. I spent several weeks in each community “soaking and
poking” without starting any formal interviews. I wanted to get their perspective before
speaking to anyone in a position of power. I wanted the citizens to help me develop my
interview questions and try and ask about those issues that concerned them as insiders,
not the questions that I thought were important coming in from the outside. I continued
to check myself with community residents throughout the process and get feedback on
my interviews with community elites.
It was here that the paths diverged. In any attempt to gain access to elites, even in
a small town, the road can often be made easier through the help of someone on the
inside. I was fortunate enough to find such a person in both communities. In Florence it
was the college president who was my “in” to the prisons and community leaders. In
Beeville, it was the prison prosecutor who did so. Both people let me do an enormous
amount of “hanging around”, as Fenno puts it.24 They would introduce me to everyone
we met and also made phone calls on my behalf. In both towns, those people I did not
meet in this manner, I met them at city council meetings and in Beeville, at the county
commissioner’s court. There were very few outsiders at these meetings, so it was not
difficult to get attention and introduce myself afterwards.
My formal interviews were structured around several questions that I asked every
interviewee.25 From there, I let the conversation flow. I wanted to have systematic
answers to certain questions, but was willing to allow for a fair amount of wandering.
For the most part, this was not a problem. Before I would ask my first formal questions, I
always warmed up my respondents by asking about their work. When I did not do this, I
often got very brief answers to the questions that I were answered in detail by others. I

22

Florence’s library is very limited, both in resources and in the hours it was open, so I instead used the
library facilities in next door Canon City, where they have a wonderful local history office. The women
who work in the basement office were helpful beyond my wildest dreams, since they spent much of their
time cutting and sorting articles from the local papers and filing them by topic.
23
In using local newspapers, rather than regional ones I feel that I was able to discern a more “local” view
of the process.
24
See the introduction to Home Style for the importance of “hanging around,” especially in the early stages
of this type of research.
25
See Appendix A

wanted to build rapport before asking the more important questions.26 For the most part
this worked and 30 minute appointments rarely lasted less than an hour an often lasted
longer.27
With town officials, I always let them tell me their version of how the prisons
came to town. This could sometimes be very repetitive, but the subtle differences in the
stories, or even those details emphasized by one person over another were important in
the social history discussed in the next section. I tried my best to always act like this was
the first time I had heard the story.28
I made an attempt to interview all local elected officials. For the most part, I did
so, and those that I did not interview were the result of scheduling conflicts, rather than a
refusal on their part to speak to me. I interviewed both town’s current city managers as
well as a few former ones. I also interviewed the heads of both local chambers of
commerce as well as police chiefs, sheriffs and as many of their underlings as they would
allow.
Some respondents who were formally interviewed in one place were not
necessarily in the other. For example, I spoke to the Superintendent of the Beeville
school system, who referred me to a principle of the elementary school where many
children of Corrections officers went. She was extremely helpful in discussing some of
the issues involved with this influx of children to the school system. Given how few
Corrections Officers actually live in Florence or have children who attend the schools
there, this hardly seemed a necessary interview to conduct there.
There were also other community leaders that had no equivalent person from one
place to the other, for example the special prison prosecutor. There is no prison
prosecutor in Florence and even the district attorney was of little help with prison
prosecutions, since they were held in Federal Court. I also spoke with several local
judges in Beeville, but did not try to interview the federal judges who were responsible
for Florence, since they were located a distance away in Pueblo. Overall, there were very
few interviews that I wish I had conducted that I did not and few community leaders who
did not give graciously of their time.
On the prison’s side, I attempted to interview all of the top officials in both states.
This was a far easier task in Texas than in Colorado. Every person I contacted in Texas
was willing to meet with me (including several former wardens and one warden who had
moved to a facility in Huntsville, Texas) and was rarely made to feel like I was intruding
on an interviewee’s time. I spoke to the current wardens and assistant wardens of all
three facilities in Beeville as well as several Majors, the highest uniformed officers in the
26

For the importance of building rapport, see Fenno, p. 263-274.
This didn’t always happen, however. Several respondents, especially prison employees, remained
guarded throughout my interview and couldn’t wait to get me out of their offices. I would sometimes fall
back on some form of “I’m not a reporter here…I’m not trying to make you look stupid,” with mixed
results
28
I also tried my best to play what Ray Charles referred to as “country dumb,” often using stories of my
childhood in rural Maine to warm up the conversations. In her article on elite interviewing, Beth Leech
makes the argument that one never wants to try and come off as smarter than the interviewee (PS?). In
rural communities, there also seemed to be a distrust of my being from what they considered an elite
eastern university (I’m pretty sure by the reaction I got to stating that I was a student at Rutgers, that most
people had Rutgers confused with Princeton). I found that by mentioning that I grew up in a small town
Northern Maine helped with this.
27

Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Even the regional director of the TDCJ
and director of institutions for all of Texas met with me.
This process was not as easy in Colorado. Several wardens granted me interviews
after I met them and introduced myself at a local economic development corporation
luncheon, but several others either refused outright or ducked my calls after I met them.
Even so, I interviewed seven top administrators for the BOP formally and spoke to
several others informally at various meetings.
During the interview process, I realized very quickly that I got much more
detailed answers if I began by discussing the job of being a warden or prison
administrator, rather than beginning with my formal questions. Several administrators
wanted to conduct their interviews on the run, giving me a tour of the facility while
answering my questions. Although this sometimes led to some interesting incidents, it
also led to a much freer flowing conversation.29 In every case but one, these very busy
individuals went well beyond the time that they scheduled for me. One warden came to
speak to my class at the local community college about corrections work, complete with a
number of inmate knives or shanks and homemade tattoo machines.
Most of my interview questions and theories came from the in-depth
conversations I had with community residents, very few of whom are cited in this study.
They gave me the canvas on which my other respondents painted. Often times, it was in
these encounters and conversations where I first heard about issues that I discussed at
length with prison officials and community leaders. Without the groundwork, these issues
never would have come to the surface and I would not have known their importance.
CONCLUSION:
Exploratory research as a whole is a useful tool in beginning to understand issues
and questions when the current state of knowledge is limited. The relationship between
prisons and communities is one of these areas of interest. Despite some work in the field,
little is known about what these communities can expect to get from these institutions on
which they have hung their economic future. These expectations include the economic
effects, but the relationship that is developed between the local governmental institutions
and the prisons is important as well.
This section discussed the method used in this paper to expand our knowledge in this
field. Like many ethnographic works, it is exploratory. The design involved studying
two communities for a substantial period of time in order to learn the central themes that
surface in these new prison towns. The preliminary stages of the research were mainly
informal interviews with community residents. I then conducted formal interviews with
community and prison leaders about the subjects discussed in the first stage in this
research. Using this methodology I was able to uncover many issues that were not
29

Two incidents in particular are worth repeating. During one tour/interview, the warden I was
interviewing introduced me to an inmate, something no one else did. After meeting this inmate, the
Warden told me that he had first met this man over 20 years earlier when he was a corrections officer in
Texas. He was now a warden in a federal facility and had run into this man in his prison, some 1000 miles
away from their first meeting. A second incident occurred when I was invited to lunch by a different
warden. I’ve read many prison memoirs and a common theme in these books is that inmates will often
violate the food served in the staff dining hall with various bodily fluids. I wanted to refuse this gesture,
but felt that I could not without ruining my rapport with this man, so with great trepidation, I ate hot dogs
and fries in the staff cafeteria. To date, I have not shown any signs of illness.

previously discussed in the research on prison towns. Before discussing these findings,
however, we must first get a better understanding of the towns themselves. The
following section paints such a picture by detailing the history and geography of Florence
and Beeville.
HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY
“[C]ommunity” not only conceptually distinguishes the past from the
present but also authentic members of the community from a host of
“others” whose presence is perceived to be undermining in any number
of ways.
Greenhouse, Law and Community in Three American Town

As I drove west on highway 50 into Fremont County, Colorado at 8pm on June
8 , 2003, I was not expecting to see much. I figured that I would find a home for the
night and explore the area the next day. But in the distance, I saw the unmistakable
orange glow of the “night” lights of a rather large prison complex. This was my first time
actually seeing the lights of ADX Florence, the so-called “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” the
Federal Government’s only supermax prison. This is where it houses “the worst of the
worst” inmates under 23 hour-a-day lockdown. At least I assumed it was ADX Florence.
Actually, I was not sure which of the 13 prisons that Freemont County houses that I was
seeing. My assumption had been that I might catch a glimpse of the ADX or from the
road, but it could not have been more than a few more seconds before I saw another
orange glow. And then another. And then another. And then a billboard for the
Colorado Territorial Prison Museum. It might as well have said “Welcome to Prisontown
USA.”
Florence, Colorado is located where the high eastern plains of Colorado meet the
“foothills” of the Rocky Mountains in Central Colorado (see figure one). “Foothills” is a
relative terms here, since these hills are over 9000 feet high, rising 4000 feet from the
Colorado Plateau below. They are, however, foothills when compared to the 13,000 and
14,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the south and west. Florence has
only two stoplights, two motels and one fast food joint. If the prison has brought any
prosperity to this small rural community, it was not immediately noticeable to me.
Beeville, Texas lies in the heart of South Texas (see figure two) and presents itself
quite differently than Florence. While one can see for miles on a Colorado highway,
South Texas is flat. Really flat. Really flat and really brown. Driving into Beeville from
East Texas, it feels like you might fall off the edge of the earth at any moment. The roads
are long, straight and seemingly endless. In fact, I was told that the stretch of highway
that runs near Beeville to Corpus Christi is the longest stretch of highway without a curve
in the United States. Unlike Florence, you could almost trip over the prisons in town
without noticing them beforehand.
Texas is only considered a coherent whole by those who do not live there. For
Texans, there is a significant cultural distinction based on geography and terrain. East
Texas, with Houston as its hub, has more in common with its Louisiana neighbors than it
does with the ranch lands of West Texas that President Bush calls home. South Texas is
distinct. Its culture has a distinctly Mexican feel to it and although Beeville is not
th

directly on the border like Laredo or Brownsville the influence is still obvious. Despite
the fact that Beeville is only a few hours drive from the urban, cultural centers of both
San Antonio and Austin, there is nothing cosmopolitan about this place.
There is more to a community than just where it is located. Since ethnographic
work is imbedded in the local community, the logical starting point for any study of this
type is an understanding of history and geography. I begin the substantive sections by
outlining what is distinct about these two places and discuss some of what they have in
common. This section will outline the history and geography of these two communities,
especially their successful efforts to land a prison.
WHAT IS A COMMUNITY?:
The term “community” that is used consistently by the respondents in this study
can be troubling and raises many questions. For example, what are the definitional limits
of “community?” Is this a question of geography or something deeper? Who is to be
considered a part of the community? It is in attempting to answer these questions that the
insider/outsider dichotomy begins to take form. The community is defined, in many
ways, by who is considered an “insider” and who is considered an “outsider.” Geography
is part of what matters in this definition, but one is not considered part of a community
just based on a geographic location. Insider status is, in many ways, a self-definition and
can be a very fuzzy concept, but an important one for the residents of a town.
Greenhouse and others argue that the insider or “good” citizen defines himself and others
in juxtaposition to the outsider or “bad” citizen and builds important notions about
“community” using this classification (1994, p. 10).
Defining the insider and outsider is a difficult task. “[T]he boundary between
‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ is selective, fluid, somewhat arbitrary, and sometimes nonexistent. That is, the concept of outsider does not necessarily apply to any actual group
(p. 11).” The outsiders in my research often come in the form of newcomers to the
community brought in with the new businesses for economic development purposes. All
communities struggle with the encroachment of the larger society on their smaller world,
usually due to market forces. Adjustments are made, but many “insiders” consider these
changes to be detrimental to their notions of a good community and many have an
especially hard time adjusting to new realities and get caught up in the quagmire of
economic development policy (p. 75). On the one hand, a small town saves itself from
potential extinction by bringing in new business, but on the other, a new element is
brought in that changes the face of the community, bringing in the consummate
“outsider” in the form of new employees (p. 158-161).
In small towns, the idea of community is given “great cultural weight borne by
images of a harmonious small town, a face-to-face society (p. 12).” This idea comes from
a mix of local social history and personal memory in which there is a harkening back to a
local “golden age;” a time “when things worked” (p. 149). The reality of life cannot live
up to this mythology and many bemoan the current state of “community” in their towns.
This is the “myth of community,” one that exists in many rural towns. It is the idea that,
although there is no “community” now, but there was a time when it was a part of their
lives. Due to this harkening back, there is an important relationship between
“community” and “history” in these small towns (p. 149). A shared social history is an

important part in keeping the “myth of community” alive; it is a tricky concept and
perspectives (as well as one’s own “reality”) change over time.
There is a tension that specifically arises between the importance of social
harmony and the introduction of market realities. The sense in the community is that in
order to continue just to survive an influx of new capital is needed and there is inevitably
the arrival of an outside element, which in tern brings dissonance into the previous sense
of harmony. But as we will see below, this sense of former harmony itself may just be a
myth, nonetheless the addition of new residents or even commuters become the “other”
which a community can blame for the current problems. “Insiders” place these others
into a category outside of their community, despite the difficulty insiders have in defining
exactly what they mean when they use the term.
Community becomes a mix of the concepts of geography and a shared social
history. This definition automatically and purposely excludes new residents who may
move to a town. Their exclusion from and perspective on the community in which they
now work is an important one and is better served by keeping them as “outsiders.” This
is also done because the people who consider themselves “insiders” do so. Even with this
definition, such as it is, the definitional problems continue. The next section will define
one of the important parts of the definition of community itself, that of geography.
GEOGRAPHY:
If there is such a thing as a quaint rural town, neither Beeville nor Florence is it.
Florence has some distinct geographical features that might make it more appealing than
Beeville, but it is hardly Vail or Aspen, which lie in the mountains several hours to the
north. The poverty of both communities is tangible and obvious to any visitor, with their
abundant trailer parks and teenage girls pushing baby carriages. There are no high end
stores in either place, or a mall within 30 miles.
Beeville, for its small population size, is actually quite sprawling. There is a
downtown area, which has the courthouse and the library at its center, but most of the
shopping has moved to the north side of town. This is the commercial zone, with all of
the larger stores, except for the large H-E-B grocery store that is on the western edge of
downtown. There is a Wal-Mart (which has since become a Super Wal-Mart), a large
tractor supply store, and a few fast food joints and motels. The prisons are on the
outskirts of town to the south and east.
Florence is much smaller and compact. Other than a new grocery store, and a
Super 8 motel (which is a stone’s throw from the prisons), there is no commercial life
beyond downtown and downtown itself has little commercial activity aimed at its
residents, besides the local bars. Florence’s residential zones are either dilapidated older
houses or newer modular homes. The only real growth that is immediately discernable is
the new high school, built thanks to a bond issue on the ballot a few years ago.
To the outside observer, neither community looks like it has experienced an
economic boom. In rural communities it seems that the storefronts in downtown are one
measure by which locals gauge the strength of their community- the fewer empty
storefronts that exist, the stronger the health of the town. There is an economic reality at
play in this and more stores might mean a bustling economy, but there is a symbolic
meaning as well. Many of the individuals that I talked to in both communities discussed
the prevalence of empty storefronts in downtown before the prisons came. The empty

storefront represents not only a loss of economic security, but also a sense of community
instability.
Both towns have filled most of their empty storefronts, but with very different
results. The San Antonio Express wrote a story about downtown Beeville stating “while
Beeville now has an abundance of fast-food franchises, its newer businesses also include
rent-to-own furniture stores, nine signature lenders, three pawn shops and a growing
number of payday lenders, including two located in Circle K stores.” (Guerra, 2000)
These are not the kind of stores that most communities crave. They are stores that cater
to a constituency living from paycheck to paycheck, without enough expendable income
to afford luxury items. The situation was much the same as when I was there. Despite
this, the H-E-B supermarket has expanded twice since the prisons came and business at
the Wal-Mart is bustling. But this has done little to revitalize downtown.
Main Street in Florence seems to deal in two major commodities, alcohol and
antiques. Whether or not the bars have opened in response to the prison is questionable,
but the antique shops were certainly brought in through other means. According to a
former City Manager, the Florence business leaders have taken the lead in changing their
economic situation with the town’s new emphasis on selling antiques and knickknacks,
since the prisons did not bring the kind of boom they had hoped for (SR, personal
communication, August, 2003). Another former Town Manager also sees very little
change in the economics of Florence that came from the prisons, but has seen some
growth through other means. The town’s business leaders had expected that the
government would spend more money in the town on supplies, but the Bureau of Prisons
(BOP) has contracts with big firms for almost everything they buy. BOP regulations
allow each facility to contract on its own for many of its supplies, but Florence’s business
leaders rarely get the contracts.30
One local warden claims that this is a problem of expectations from the town’s
standpoint. He said, “they didn’t seem to understand that everything we buy has to be bid
on and we always buy from the lowest bidder. If the local true value store is selling
hammers for $50 and we can get it elsewhere for $25, we’re going to buy the hammer for
$25 (JG, personal communication, July, 2003).” The point is valid as a large prison
facility is not going to shop at the local grocery or department store. Several years ago, a
group of business owners had a meeting with the Wardens at the FCC to discuss the
possibility of the prisons conducting more business with local vendors, but it seems to
have little impact (LL, personal communication, May 2004).
Additionally, neither town is a geographical dream world. Despite having
mountains at its outskirts, Florence is by no means a beautiful location and is much more
arid desert than forest. The mountains might be considered lovely in another setting, but
not when one can drive an hour away and see the craggy peaks of the Sangre de Cristos.
I heard Florence residents call their mountains “ugly (SM, personal communication, May
2004).” Even so, at least they have their ugly mountains, since Beeville does not even
have a physical feature that is distinctive at all. Not that either town is particularly
distinctive. They both look like hundreds of small rural communities around the U.S.
with their dilapidated downtowns and busting Wal-Marts. Even the prisons do not
30

For the BOP’s general rules about contacts with vendors, see http://www.bop.gov/business/how.jsp. The
full BOP regulations can be found at http://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/4100_004.pdf. This is a 133 page
document that describes in detail what the BOP requires in order for a business to become a vendor.

detract from their rural American appearance and given the addition of prisons in so
many communities, may actually add to it. Where these two towns differ most is in their
social make-up and specifically their racial make-up.
SOCIO-ECONOMIC FACTORS:
In most measures of economic health, Beeville and Florence are very similar
when compared to how far behind they are to their respective states and the country as a
whole. Where they diverge, however, is in the changes in median household income
levels and unemployment rates, since Beeville’s economic indicators have worsened
since 1990 while Florence’s have shown some improvement. This may be a sign that
Florence is seeing some positive development due to the prisons, but several scholars
point out that these indicators are complex when only looking at a few communities
(Hooks, 2004; McShane, Williams and Wagoner, 1992).
The median family income in Beeville in 2000 was $14,000 less that in all of
Texas while Florence lagged behind the rest of Colorado at the time by almost $18,000.31
Both towns lagged behind the country as a whole by almost $16,000 year. When one
considers the relationship between median household incomes in the towns in
relationship to the state, these two towns appear to be going in opposite directions
between 1990 and 2000. The median household income in Florence was 53% that of
Colorado as a whole in 1990, but went up to 61% in 2000. Beeville’s median household
income in relation to the rest of Texas has gone down over the same period, from 72% to
65%. In Beeville’s case, this may not have any relationship to the opening of the prison,
since the local Naval Air Station also closed during that period of time, with a loss of a
large number of jobs. It may be argued that this decline would have been even more
severe had the prisons not opened. For Florence, these numbers seem to indicate some
growth in relation to the state as a whole and may show that the prisons have indeed had
an impact on the economy. However, there may also be something to the argument made
by several former city managers that a focus on tourism and the addition of the antique
stores to the downtown area has made a difference in Florence’s economic health.
Whether or not there has been some growth in Florence, we still have two
communities who lag far behind the rest of the country on most measures of socioeconomic status. While the country as a whole had 9.2% of families living below
poverty level in 2000, those numbers were 12.5% and 26.5% for Florence and Beeville
respectively. Thirty-three percent of the population as a whole is in professional,
managerial or other related occupations, while only about 25% of the populations of
Florence and Beeville are. Neither of these indicators has changed significantly since the
prisons came to town, so the growth may come from elsewhere.
Another area of divergence was in unemployment, where Florence had only a
1.3% unemployment rate in 2000 as compared to 5.5% in Beeville and 3.7% nationally.
In the unemployment realm, we again see two towns going in opposite directions since
the prisons opened. Beeville’s unemployment rate was 3.0% in 1990 while Florence’s
was 10.1%. The national average in 1990 was 5.6%. One might argue that this too is a
result of the prisons, but most people, whether from the prison or the community claim
that very few prison jobs went to Florence residents.
31

All of the data cited in this section was retrieved from
http://factfinder.census.gov/home/saff/main.html?_lang=en

In addition to hard economic data, there are other important social indicators.
One such indicator is racial, but the racial make-up of the two communities is important
for different reasons for the purposes of this study. In Florence, there are a significant
number of minority prison workers, most of whom live elsewhere. Part of this reason
may be just how white Florence is.32 According to the 2000 Census, Florence is nearly
93% White with an African-American population of 0.3%. In other words, Florence has
11 black residents out of a population of 3653. Next door Cañon City was once home to
the Colorado Chapter of the KKK and several prison administrators told me that their
black employees complained about being profiled by the local police (HR, personal
communication, June, 2004).
Beeville is not the heart of heterogeneity either, but has a bit more racial diversity
than Florence, since it has a large Hispanic population. Beeville is only 3% Black, but
Hispanics make up almost 68% of the population. Beeville has a serious racial divide,
with Hispanics and White neighborhoods standing on opposite sides of the railroad
tracks. The racial tensions are still obvious in the politics of the town, despite
protestations to the contrary. Ken Chesshir told me that, “You have some old timers, like
Arnold (Councilman Arnold Medina) who still screams ‘racism’ at every turn, but for the
most part, things seem to be calmer now. Gilbert Herrera (a young City Council member
and TDCJ employee) says that we should have a Hispanic mayor, but then Gil has
wanted to be mayor since the third day he was on the Council (personal communication,
February, 2004).”
Chesshir may claim that it’s getting better, but Medina abstains from every vote
the Council takes. Three of the four County Commissioners were Hispanic at the time of
my research, but several white local politicians argued that this was because they packed
the voting booths, taking busloads of seniors from the local homes to the polls as well as
other more unsavory acts. Whether or not this is true or just an urban (or rather rural)
myth is up for debate, but shows the level of distrust between the races in the political
world.
Although Beeville has more Hispanics than Florence, both towns AfricanAmerican populations remain minuscule. In fact, the only Blacks I encountered in
Beeville were on work crews and there was something very unnerving in seeing these
inmates in their white uniforms, chained together and doing landscaping and other grunt
work. The scene certainly had a slave-like feel to it that made me quite uncomfortable. I
often asked about this issue, but none of my interviewees seemed to see the connection as
I did. I also asked what the effects might be on a community when the only Blacks the
residents encountered were incarcerated, but many community members dodged the
issue. In fact, most seemed perplexed by the question.
One official did discuss the issue of race with me. He stated that there was a
problem in bringing criminally sophisticated urban blacks to Beeville to be watched over
by “ignorant country boys” as corrections officers (DH personal communication, March,
2004). He claimed that the inmates viewed them as fresh meat and did what they could
to corrupt them. He said that they start with small favors, asking CO’s to mail a letter for
them or some such small favor. Such a favor can cost an employee his job and after one
such incident, the inmate essentially owns them, threatening to tell a supervisor about the
32

As on black warden told me, “I can’t even find anyone here who can give me a haircut (HR, personal
communication, August 2003).”

favor unless the officer does more significant ones. Furthermore, the inmates will take
advantage when they can. In one such incident, several inmates were indicted for
unlawful restraint of a corrections officer. A 19 year old local corrections officer was
held in a cell by three inmates during a cell search. Another inmate came out of the cell
for the search and after getting on the other side of the CO, claimed that he had to go
back in. He then pushed the CO into the cell where the other three grabbed him and held
him down. The event ended without injuries, but the incident seems to exemplify the
official’s concerns.
Despite some differences in these two places, there is much that they share. This
is especially true in terms of a similar history in lobbying for a prison facility. This
process is an important part of the shared social history of each community and is the
most important one in this study. The decision to and process of lobbying to land a
prison changed the face of these two communities, often in ways never imagined. The
following section will discuss this significant historical moment and describe the
lobbying process in both communities.
SITING AND LOBBYING: THE PRISON DERBY:33
Overall, the lobbying and siting process is a whirlwind of activity, with
community meetings to discuss the proposal to get the prisons and prison officials
visiting the towns and holding meetings of their own with community leaders and
residents. Communities put together incentive packages to woo the prison away from
other contenders and towards their own community. Prison leaders discuss concerns that
exist among those few residents who might question the wisdom of bringing a prison into
their community and the entire process reaches a fever pitch. Eventually a decision is
made and the real work of opening a prison begins. The following sections describe the
lobbying process that took place in each town.
BEEVILLE:
According to former City Manager and current head of the Bee Economic
Development Authority (BEDA) Joe Montez, a Request for Proposals (RFP) from the
Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) ended up on his desk and he began putting out
feelers in the community (personal communication, January, 2004). Montez has been a
fixture in South Texas politics for over two decades, moving on to be City Manager of
Corpus Christi before coming back to Beeville. The TDC (now the Texas Department of
Criminal Justice or TDCJ) made it very clear that they would not consider any sites with
significant community opposition.
Historically, prisons were not usually considered a paved road to economic
revitalization. Lawsuits and other means of stopping various entities from locating
prisons where they had not been before were commonplace (Carlson, 1992). Montez said
that he was aware of this and wanted to garner as much support from community leaders
as possible before bringing the proposal to the general public. His first move was to
enlist the help of Grady Hogue, the highly respected former president of Bee County
33

These histories are compiled manly from interviews, but also from the two local newspapers, The BeePicayune and The Cañon City Daily Record, and two local history books, Margaret Moser’s wonderfully
detailed, The Biography of a Particular Place (2001) about Bee County and Rosamae Campell’s From
Trappers to Tourists (1972) about Fremont County, Colorado.

Community College to set up the Beeville Economic Development Authority (BEDA)
and to help garner support from Beeville’s business and political leaders.
According to the Executive Director of the Beeville Chamber of Commerce, it
was her organization that started things. She said, “I know Joe likes to take credit for it,
but the whole idea started in this office. We started a petition and when we got the
signatures, we started the ball rolling (TH, personal communication, January, 2004).”
Whether the proposal started in city hall or at the chamber of commerce, business leaders
were open to the idea. The local elected officials took a bit longer to get on board.
Montez told me, “I remember the look on the mayor’s face when I told him. I said ‘we’re
going to get a prison’ and he said ‘are you crazy?’ (January 2004).”
Montez decided to go to the Bee County Commissioner’s Court instead.34 The
county commissioners were more open to the idea than the city government had been
(especially after the petition was completed) and they brought the City Council around.
Eventually, both the City Council and County Commissioner’s Court gave a joint
endorsement for the proposal to the TDC.
South Texas Politics is a Democrats game (although Democrat in Texas means
something very different than Democrat in the Northeast), but the tide in the whole state
was already turning towards the Republicans. Political savvy led Montez and Hougue to
enlist the help of an unlikely ally, Republican County Commissioner Susan Stasny
(personal communication, February, 2004). Stasny is an imposing presence; a tall, blond
former cheerleader from the University of Houston. She is fond of pointing out that she’s
the only current County Commissioner with a college education and has been the only
Republican in the county who has managed to stay in office for more than a single term.
“I think they just figured that I knew how to ‘talk republican,’ and given the
makeup of the committee in charge, they needed someone who could speak the language
up in Austin (February 2004).”
The support was there and Beeville put together a proposal for a maximum
security prison, a so-called 2250, which is a prototypical Texas Prison Unit.35 Local
editorials sung the praises of the proposed prison that would bring in 766 employees and
a payroll of $1.3 million a month (Latcham, 1989, p. 4). In an editorial under the
headline “Let’s get behind bars,” the Bee Picayune’s editor, Jeff Latcham, discussed the
positive impact of Naval Air Station- Chase Field (this was before it was targeted for
closing) and Bee County College as positive trends in the town’s development.36 He
stated, “[W]e would encourage citizens to continue the trend of positive, progressive
growth by supporting the city’s and county’s efforts to submit a proposal for a Texas
Department of Corrections maximum security unit here (p. 4). The article argued that
“TDC’s job requirements for such a facility is 766 employees resulting in a daily payroll
of $43,000-plus ($1.3 million a month) (p. 4).”37 In addition to discussing the numbers,
the editorial asserted that:
34

Texas seems to have an obsession with naming entities differently than the rest of the country. Prisons
are Units and the County government is the Commissioner’s Court, with the County Judge as the head.
The County Judge isn’t a judge in the usual sense of the word, but the political leader of the county.
35
See footnote 55. A 2250 unit actually holds 2900 inmates when the Trusty camp is added to the
population.
36
Note that all of these are governmental or quasi-government developments, not industrial ones.
37
The number of jobs that would go to locals as opposed to those who would be transferred in wasn’t
discussed in great detail at any point during the siting process.

Some of the economic advantages also would include:
• It is both a clean and stable industry
• It will help pay off the water district bonds through the sale of our
present surplus water.
• It will not create a burden on our present sewer capacity
• And, it will create a market for our available housing (p. A4)
The paper went further, saying, “[l]etters of endorsement from individuals,
businesses and organizations are needed.” The editorial summed up by saying “It’s
important for the community’s future. It’s important for your future (p. A4).”
Latcham got on his bully pulpit again just five weeks later in an editorial
headlined “Prison Could Salvage our ‘Reeling’ Economy (Latcham, 1989b, p. A4).” The
headline was a pun referring to the closing of the Plaza Theatre which, according to the
paper, was a sign of the community’s tough economic times and the editorial used the
movie The Last Picture Show as a metaphor for the town’s potential demise. The article
focused not only the economic advantages, but also on the classic NIMBY concerns. A
Chamber of Commerce luncheon had been held where concerns about the prison were
discussed and questions were answered by two top TDC officials. Latcham writes that,
some of the answers should be comforting to those who envision the
classic Hollywood version of a prison town. For instance:
•

•
•
•

It is extremely difficult to receive a furlough in the TDC…The
only way Beeville would receive furloughed inmates would be if
they were headed here anyway…
No evidence exists that prisoners’ families move to the community
in which their inmate is incarcerated…
Prisoners would not be released here in Beeville…
And TDC’s progressive programs have drastically reduced prison
violence and escapes in the past five years. (p.A4)

Latcham then dropped the boom. “It is important for Beeville to pursue this prison,
particularly since no other industry is presently knocking at our door (p. A4).” He
summed up using his The Last Picture Show analogy. “It’s important for us to move
forward. We’ll no doubt see another movie theatre in time, but we certainly can’t take
that or anything else for granted. Let’s make sure that the Plaza was not our last picture
show (p. A4).” The push for support worked and in May of 1989 a final version of the
proposal to bring the prison to Beeville was prepared and presented to the State
Legislature.
Bee County made the TDC’s first cut and put together a full incentive package.
Taken together, the proposal was worth $4.4 million, including $250,000 in cash.38 This
included buying the land, providing water, sewer and other utilities as well as building a
new highway bypass. The local Chamber of commerce printed up posters and bumper

38

The actual proposal was given to the author by Beeville City Manager Ford Patton

stickers with the slogan “Bee for the Max,” with prison bars inside the letters. Forty-six
other Texas communities were also vying for one of the new units.
A short, but very politically charged lobbying process ensued with Joe Montez
and Grady Hogue pulling every string that they could. On the day of the final decision,
several busloads of people went to Austin, posters in hand, to make a last ditch push. A
local college student even dressed up in a bee costume for the event. The Beeville
proposal was accepted. In fact, it was the only proposal accepted unanimously by the
TDC. What was to become known as the McConnell Unit, named for the former
Beeville Chief of Police, was a reality and opened its gates in 1991.
All was not perfect, however. A few months after the prison siting derby, the
town found out that the federal government had decided to close Naval Air Station Chase
Field, the largest employer in the county with 2100 civilian workers. So what was
supposed to be a chance to diversify their economy had become the way to save it. But
the closing of the naval base opened up an opportunity for the Texas Department of
Criminal Justice. When a military base closes, the land is first offered to other federal
agencies and then to the state. No federal agencies wanted an old military base in
Beeville, Texas, so the TDCJ stepped in and took the land. They built two mediumsecurity prison units on this land that serve as the classification units for the TDCJ and
built a corrections officer training facility there. The land also houses the regional offices
for the TDCJ. The town that had lobbied specifically for a maximum-security unit, now
also had two medium-security units housing over 5000 inmates as well as a small
minimum security camp.
FLORENCE:
Florence watched its neighboring town of Cañon City gain five new state
correctional facilities during the 1980’s, while its own economy flagged along with the
decline of the mining industry. The relationship between the state Department of
Corrections (DOC) and Cañon City has been mutually beneficial and Florence was
hoping that its relationship with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) would be just as
positive. Even more so, they hoped that the economic payoffs would be greater. A
Federal Corrections Officer’s (CO) starting salary is around $28,000,39 far higher than the
State’s $21,000.40 During the bidding process, the site coordinator for the BOP, Pat
Sledge, said that up to 270 of the 450 positions at the new penitentiary would go to local
citizens a significant number in a town with a population of just over 3000.41
Florence got into the bidding process in May of 1987 after Cañon City brought in
the BOP to look at 220 acres of land on the outskirts of town that the Benedictine monks
had put up for sale. Even though the Abbey decided to take the property off of the
market, the Federal government still showed interest in coming to Fremont County.
Senator Harold McCormick tried to get the entire state behind the idea of bringing the
proposed prison to Colorado, but the legislature killed the measure.
Florence, however, went on undaunted. The BOP was hinting that there might be
as many as three prisons in the complex (it turned out to be four) and in June of 1988, the
39

http://www.bop.gov/hrmpg/hrmcorrectionalofficer.html
http://www.gssa.state.co.us/announce/job+announcements.nsf/5a50e7ae62411f9e872564db004c6ce2/62d
2067e2be56adf87256e51007bfff4?OpenDocument
41
Cañon City Record, 1/25/1989
40

Florence community went on the offensive, starting a campaign to raise $100,000 to buy
a parcel of land on the outskirts of town in order to donate it to the Federal Government.
In Florence, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, Darryl Lindsay, with Fremont
Economic Development Corporation head, Skip Dyer and Florence Mayor Tom
McCormick led the charge.42 Unlike Beeville, the town did not have the capital to buy
the land, so these men went about raising the money from private sources.
The Cañon City Daily Record held a poll early in 1988 and 98.2% of respondents
supported at least some form of federal prison in Florence. The original proposition was
for one 700 bed medium security prison, one 200 bed minimum security prison with the
potential for a second medium security facility with 700 beds and an expansion of 400
beds in the minimum camp. According to the survey, the prison complex would provide
500 jobs and about $25 million annually in “local salaries and purchases.”43
Florence set out to raise the money needed to buy the land to donate it to the
federal government. They took individual donations, had a competition between local
businesses, held a carnival and polished the whole thing off with a 24 hour radiothon on
June 30th, 1988. All told the town raised more than $126,000. The BOP was impressed
by the local show of support and began serious consideration of the town and performed
an environmental impact statement later in the year.
The impact statement was made public in January of 1989 and the town held a
series of public forums on the proposed prisons in March. The environmental study
found no factors that would preclude Fremont County as a potential site and, according to
both newspaper reports and people that attended the meetings, there were no negative
comments made at any of the forums.44 The BOP then proposed adding a 500-bed
maximum security facility to the project.
Although there were several delays in the actual decision process, Florence was
chosen as the site for the new project on October 31st, 1989 with construction to be
started in the spring of 1990. On December 1st, the BOP made an announcement that it
would purchase the 400 acres of land itself so that the town could use the money it raised
to extend utility lines to the remote location. They also announced that they intended to
build another facility on the campus and that this fourth prison would take the place of
their Marion facility as the only level six security prison in the federal system.45 Level
six is the so-called supermax level where the BOP sends the “worst of the worst.”
Eventually this facility would house such prison superstars as Ramsey Yussef, John
Gotti, Ted Kaczynski and both Oklahoma City bombers. The Administrative Maximum
Security Prison, or ADX, would be a 23 hour a day lockdown facility, built almost
entirely underground.
In December of 1989, the Federal Bureau of Prisons opened up an office in
downtown Florence. Locals were so desperate for the promised jobs that the headline of
42

Unfortunately, Skip Dyer and Tom McCormick have both passed away, so I only have Darryl Lindsay’s
recollection, in addition to newspaper reports, to go on.
43
The fact that the number of jobs proposed keeps changing is not due to poor research on the author’s
part. The proposed number of prisons and types of prisons kept changing until the final number of four
was reached. As the proposal changed, so did the number of purported jobs that would go to the local
community, although all estimates were based on an assumption that 60% of jobs would go to locals.
44
Florence Citizen 3/30/1989
45
Alcatraz was the first level six facility in the Fedral system, but was replaced by Marion when it closed in
1963.

the local paper on January 8th, 1990 stated “Federal Bureau of Prisons: Don’t apply for
Jobs Yet.” According to the local BOP office, they had already received numerous calls
and letters asking about potential employment, but the BOP stated that it would be at
least another year before the hiring process for the promised jobs began.
The groundbreaking on the $150 Million project began July 14th of that year. The
project was to be the largest prison complex in the federal system to date. The
construction contract went to a contractor from Greeley, Colorado. The Colorado Rural
Revitalization program set up shop. The town braced for the upcoming boom of
business on Main Street. According to one newspaper report, construction may have
swelled the population of Florence, but construction jobs were not going to locals.
Despite this, local residents were preparing for the prison’s opening, volunteering for
cleanup projects which included plans to reopen the Rialto Theater on Main Street (to
date, it is still closed).
The minimum and medium security prisons opened their gates and the first
inmates arrived in early 1992. All of the prisons were up and running by December of
1994. The prison inmates were sent into the community on various projects, painting a
local school and helping out at a veteran’s nursing home. Early reports on the
relationship between the town and the prison complex were mostly positive. As one
reporter put it, “if one ignores the razor wire around the medium security prison, the two
prisons visible from Colorado 67 look like a campus with mauve and powder blue
buildings.”
CONCLUSION:
What we see above are two very similar stories of an economic development plan
that has become more commonplace in the last 20 years. Two rural towns, desperate for
jobs and some semblance of industry turn towards the government to save them from
economic ruin. Both towns had a blueprint for this idea. Beeville had long been kept
afloat by the military, even when oil and ranching were no longer viable options.
Florence had seen its neighbor of Canon City “thrive” to some extent by depending on
the Colorado Department of Corrections. It is not surprising, then, that given the
opportunity to look for help from a governmental entity, both took advantage of the
situation.
Additionally, the time periods are nearly identical. The United States was already
in the midst of a changing economy, from the more industrial past to a service oriented
economy. Both towns, lacking in major transportation access or a particularly well
educated and trained populace had little chance to take advantage of these opportunities.
The “dot com” revolution would take place in Texas three hours to the north, in Austin,
with its access to the University of Texas. Denver is a boomtown of the West, but is also
three hours from the rural community of Florence. Given these circumstances, it hardly
seems strange that the local elites got creative and looked to the government to solve their
economic crisis.
Neither town may have realized it at the time, but both would become a prison
hub housing over 3000 inmates. Also, the towns put together proposals that just a decade
before would have seemed ludicrous. In the early eighties, states were still imposing
their will on communities to find sites for their new facilities and often giving incentives
to do so. Of course prison building in 1980 was a much rarer event than it was in 1988

and ’89 and the changing economic realities made prisons a more feasible, if not fully
palatable option.
It is difficult to gather what the economic effects have been on these two towns.
Several scholars have pointed out the difficulty in measuring the economic effects of
local development projects, especially when there have been other intervening factors, as
there have been in both Beeville and Florence (Feiock, 1991; Fellenstein et. al. 1999;
Louishomme, 2003). The raw numbers seem to show that Florence has benefited more,
but this is difficult to say with any certainty. What is discernable is what other socioeconomic factors, such as race, play a role in this study.
Despite the differences in socio-economic factors, the lobbying process was
remarkably similar in both communities. The real difference in this regard is not who
was doing the lobbying or why, but who was being lobbied. Florence was specifically
interested in a Federal prison, while Beeville was lobbying the state. This, more than
anything else, is the most divergent issue between the two towns. The difference
between the relationships Beeville would have with the TDCJ as opposed to Florence’s
with the BOP were not a consideration at the time of the lobbying process and would not
become evident for several years.
Deciding whether or not these prisons have been a “success” in an economic
sense, seems to be beside the point at this point. The prisons dotting our rural landscape
are a reality whether they are having the hoped for economic effects or not. It is highly
unlikely that many of them, if any of them, will close anytime in the near future. Given
this, there is a need to have a better understanding of what we now have and what the
future holds for hundreds of rural communities.
Policy arguments in Washington and state capitals about the prison building boom
are an important part of this discussion, whether or not one sees a prison-industrialcomplex as a reality or not. The prison population boom has leveled off the last few
years, but states still have yet to “catch up” to the boom of the 80’s and 90’s. Even
California, whose powerful corrections officers union has fought hard to keep
privatization out of the state system, has proposals to send inmates to prison facilities in
other states to ease overcrowding. This is in addition to the current $7.8 Billion plan to
build new facilities to ease a prison system running at nearly 175% capacity.46 These
new prisons are likely to go to rural communities who are lining up for them. The fact
that the numbers do not seem to show that the prison will really help them, towns are still
eager to land a facility and, as the former director of institutions for Texas’s TDCJ told
me, the state will not even consider going to a community that doesn’t want them. They
do not have to anymore
Rural prisons all over the United States are now a fact and policy discussions
about whether this is a good or bad thing are somewhat superfluous. We need to move
beyond this and try to understand what happens when the lobbying process is but a faint
memory and the new prison is no longer so new. This section will discuss some of the
major findings of this paper, with ideas of how to improve these problems in the future
and outline some fruitful areas for future study.

46

Two federal judges are currently considering proposals to cap the inmate population in California until
new prison beds are built which would mean the early release of many inmates nearing the end of their
sentences. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/state/20070627-1819-ca-californiaprisons.html

At a core level, nearly every issue we have seen through this research has come
about due to problems of communication. Problems of inter-institutional communication
breakdowns are seen throughout and these types of issues are going to be commonplace
between any bureaucratic organizations. There are three areas where these concerns
show themselves to the largest degree. The first is promises and expectations not realized
during the lobbying stage. The second is communication between state or federal entities
and the local government. The third is communication between the prison administrators
and the community.
One cannot ignore the great amount of interaction individual prisons have with
the world around them. This paper proposes looking at prisons through a new lens, not as
a total institution that can be studied in a vacuum, but as a political and legal institution,
to be studied the same way that the courts and the police are. Although this work
certainly draws on the methodology of Sykes, Jacobs, DiIulio and Lin, where one studies
the prison through immersion (Sykes 1958, Jacobs 1977, DiIulio 1986 and Lin 2000), it
also draws on the work of other criminal justice scholars who went beyond this to look at
the interplay between the local community and criminal justice institutions (Wilson 1968,
Klonoski and Mendelsohn 1970, Lyons 1999, Skogan 2007). But this broader lens
should not just extend to local communities, but the political system as a whole.
Perhaps more importantly, we have lost sight of the fact that the police, courts and
prisons are, at least on the surface, all part of the same system. Although there has been
some interest in the interaction between the court system and the police, prisons are
usually left out of the discussion. Prisons are a vital part of this sometimes dysfunctional
system of dealing with crime and more inter-institutional studies just of the criminal
justice system could shed more light on how these institutions work, or often do not
work, together.
Prison studies need to go beyond recidivism rates and inmate population numbers.
The literature on the prison industrial complex does some of this, but prisons are still
treated as an amorphous entity, as if all prisons are essentially the same. It may well be
that Political Science and the “New Institutionalist” movement is the perfect place for
these types of studies. One of the strengths of our discipline is in understanding how
institutions interact, but we must first place prisons in their proper context- as a legal and
political institution.
From the community’s side, this paper has implications for other economic
development plans and the ensuing irony that the plans inevitably change the character of
the town itself. These communities need outside entities to bring jobs and economic
security, but they also bring new people into these small, often parochial towns.
Additionally there may be other ancillary problems that are not discussed during the
planning stages. In other words, the effect that an institution has on a community goes
beyond just the number of jobs that it brings or the impact it has on the local economy.
This paradox is a play even when the institution being brought in is not
governmental in nature. It may be that military bases or state hospitals will have similar
issues that are discussed in this paper, but this may also be true with colleges and
universities or other new “saviors” of the local economic development scene, such as
casinos. Small towns have become more active and creative in getting involved in the
world of economic development. They no longer sit back and hope that a Microsoft-like
corporation will open a large office in their town. But this activity and creativity may

lead to some of the same issues that Florence and Beeville confront regularly and the
relationships that develop between the town and its supposed economic savior may go
through a similar development that we’ve seen here.
Given the limitations of this study, to determine all of the broader implications,
but in some ways, what we have seen in these two communities is what one interviewee
called “state sponsored welfare for rural communities.”47 Market factors have left these
communities behind in a world of globalization where at the very least access to
transportation centers or a well educated populace is a needed base on which to build an
economy. There are good reasons those corporations, as Benny Johnson, mayor of
Canon City so eloquently put it, “ain’t exactly knocking at the door” and are unlikely to
do so anytime soon. Of course this begs the question; if these areas cannot compete for
corporate dollars, why should the state essentially subsidize their continued existence?
Or perhaps more to the point, if there are good reasons why corporations do not want to
locate in these areas, why would the state and federal government want to?
The “knee jerk” answer to these questions is that the incentive packages that have
been put together to woo prisons to these rural communities are too good for the
government to pass up, but this answer is too simplistic and only takes us only so far.
Rural communities often give corporations tax abatements and other incentives to move
various outfits to their area, but with little success.48 I question whether, over the long
haul, the ancillary costs of locating prisons in rural areas will overcome the savings
realized through these incentive packages and the pool of cheap labor. The federal
government does not seem to take advantage of this labor pool from the start and Texas
has seen that there is a point at which the town runs out of qualified individuals to supply.
I have seen no studies on the matter, but logic dictates that the transportation costs
involved in moving inmates too and from these rural areas would grow over time to the
point where the cheap land and utilities no longer pay off.
Even if the costs remain below what they might be in a more urban setting, there
are still issues that need to be considered. In her new book, The Golden Gulag, Ruth
Gilmore discusses the devastating effects these rural prisons have on the inmates’
relationship with their family (Gilmore 2006). We must remember that most of these
inmates in these prisons will eventually get out. Unfortunately, statistically speaking,
most will soon return. This cycle has led to prison slang such as “doing life on the
installment plan,” where inmates do brief stints in the outside world sandwiched between
long stints in prison. The utter disconnect that occurs between inmates and their families
may be a factor in this and having to take a bus many hours in order to visit a loved one
does not much help. An inmate from Houston in far eastern Texas might end up in El
Paso, some ten hours away by car. This trip is simple compared to getting to Florence
from any city outside of Colorado, which would include a plain flight and a three hour
drive from Denver, hardly something many families would be willing or able to do.
There are other issues as well, mentioned at various points throughout this paper that
seem not to hit many of the principle’s awareness. Two stand out most profoundly. The
first problem is that of having rural kids, in many cases, guarding much more
sophisticated urban inmates. The second has to do with the ancillary damage being done
47

Interview DH
Of course these communities cannot compete with oversees locations for certain types of jobs and one
would hope that states do not begin to locate prisons overseas to take advantage of the pool of cheap labor.
48

to a substantial portion of the population in these rural communities when they work as
corrections officers.
Unfortunately, these problems may just be the “nature of the beast” with our
burgeoning prison population and our current treatment of inmates. Those issues are
significant and well beyond the reach of this study, but they may be more difficult when
prisons are sited for economic reasons. This is a short term solution to a long term
problem, the proverbial “band-aid on a broken arm” that the prison building boom has
caused. And that break that is just one of the collateral effects of our current criminal
justice that seem to be just percolating below the surface. They will not just go away
without major overhauls of the system and forward thinking policy decisions.
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public safety North Miami, Fla. : FAU-FIU Joint Center for Environmental and Urban Problems, Florida
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American Correctional Association. 1995. Directory: Juvenile and adult correctional
departments, institutions, agencies, and paroling authorities. Lanham, Maryland:
American Correctional Association.
American Friends Service Committee. 1971. Struggle for justice. New York: Hill and
Wang.
Avidon, Jacob E (1998). Economic and social impacts of prisons on small cities. Publication: New
Brunswick, N.J. : Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
Baird-Olson, K. 2000. Doing what we have always done: A case study of rural policing, U.S. Department
of Justice, Washington, DC.
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