Small towns used to see prisons as a boon. Now, many don’t want them.

In its search for a new prison’s home, Nebraska finds few places willing to host.

6/10/2021 8:33:00 PM

Prisons, once seen as a small-town jackpot, are now more burden than boon. New column by keribla, published in partnership with MarshallProj.

In its search for a new prison’s home, Nebraska finds few places willing to host.

Since then, studies have shown that prisons are not the jackpots once promised. In 2003, TheSentencing Project, which advocates shorter prison sentences, found that new lockups don’t necessarily help local economies, and rural counties that built prisons followed a similar economic trajectory as those that didn’t.

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“Prisons did very little for the local economy, because unlike with other kinds of employment, where there are linkages with other businesses in the area, prisons didn’t buy things locally,” Thomas Johnson, a retired University of Missouri professor who studied prison towns, told me. “People were disappointed generally because they didn’t bring the jobs — and the jobs they did bring were mostly not the kinds of jobs people in the area wanted anyway.”

It seems that was true in Tecumseh. But there were other, unexpected downsides. The county was forced to pay for incarcerated people’s autopsies, grand juries to investigate deaths at the prison, defense lawyers for people accused of committing new crimes behind bars and the expensive prosecutions stemming from a 2017 prison riot that left one man dead. headtopics.com

“At the time, they said there would be no additional costs to the county or town due to the prison,” said Ted Evans, a commissioner in Johnson County, which is home to Tecumseh, referring to state officials. “Obviously, either they didn’t tell us the truth, or they didn’t realize the cost.”

The lockup boosted some businesses along Highway 50, he said, but it hasn’t spurred growth. Many of the prison workers commute instead of moving to town, and thethan it was two decades ago.Prisoners crowd a courtyard at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution on March 2, 2017.

Nati Harnik / APadmitted that the Tecumsehsite didn’t work out as expected.“Tecumseh's problem in the beginning was unfortunately just no one to draw from,” he said, referring to staffing challenges, “and that mistaken belief that was repeated across the country that if you build a prison near a little community, it will expand the economy.”

That “mistaken belief” has played out throughout the country. What’s unique now is the way that Nebraska is so publicly considering bucking that trend. Read more: MSNBC »

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