The economic benefits of prisons in small towns?

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by Jim Bertram

The prison project proposed for the town of Kemptville has been put forward, at least partially, based on the assertion that such a project will spur economic development. Whether that is true or not does not change the fact that this project was sprung on municipal Council with no previous consultation. Or so I have been told.

Of course, like all bald assertions, the economic development argument must be examined to see if there really is likely to be a general broad-based economic benefit to this community from the proposed jail project. There will, of course, be benefits for some local interests. But will the larger part of the population reap a benefit?

One research project on this subject (among others) (https://news.wsu.edu/2004/07/19/wsu-re-searchers-find-prisons-offer-few-economic-benefits- to-small-towns/ ) in the United States was led by Gregory Hooks, Chair of the Department of Sociology at Washington State University. It was done in collaboration with WSU sociologists Clay Mosher and Thomas Rotolo, as well Sept. 9, 2020 as Linda Lobao, an Ohio State University sociologist and past president of the Rural Sociological Society. The study turned up some surprising results.

“We found no evidence that prison expansion has stimulated economic growth,” Hooks said of the nationwide (USA) study that assessed the impact of both new and existing American rural prisons over the past 25 years. The study determined that, contrary to received wisdom on this subject, becoming the site of a new prison/jail /correctional facility – call it what you will – may actually hinder economic development efforts, particularly in rural communities that are already hard-pressed. Dr. Hooks commented: “We provide evidence that prison construction has actually impeded economic growth in those rural communities that were already growing at a slower pace. In slow-growing counties, it appears that new prisons do more harm than good.” The reasons for this are many, complex, and sometimes counter-intuitive. But they apparently are real.
Unlike previous studies on this topic, which the researchers said relied largely on the perceptions of business leaders or considered only a small number of study sites, the most recent research (2005) analyzed the economic impacts of prisons on communities in more than 3,100 counties through- out 48 states. It suggests that three major traditional indicators of economic wellbeing in rural communities – growth in earnings, per capita income, and employment – consistently showed relatively little improvement as the result of local prison construction throughout the period from 1969 to 1994.

“There is a visible pattern of earnings and employment growth,” Hooks noted. “However, those counties without a prison have the highest annual rate of growth – and those with a newly built prison grew at the slowest pace.” If at all. This last observation is significant for the case of Kemptville.

While the researchers suggest additional study is needed to explain why prisons seem to impede economic growth in some communities, they believe the findings are an indication that small towns may be paying too high a premium in accepting the establishment of such facilities. Unfortunately, a relatively poor rural jurisdiction like North Grenville just doesn’t have the financial resources to maintain adequate infrastructure in support of the additional requirements imposed by such an institution. That’s true now. And given the secretive, non-transparent nature of the provincial government, who knows what the growth of this economic Trojan horse might be in the future? What demands will it make on the municipality – that is YOU – the tax base – in coming years? And the infrastructure created to satisfy the requirements of the new and growing prison complex may be ill-suited for other potential employers; employers whose employees would be unwilling to relocate to the little jail town of Kemptville and for a host of reasons.

The oft-cited and much vaunted positive impact on employment and economic development of a new jail was shown in the study cited to be a boon to surrounding municipalities which did not have the responsibility of providing for a large, soon to become much larger, jail and the tax hikes to come with it. Around 60% or more of the benefits which DO accrue went to neighbouring jurisdictions, since workers chose to live in a town which had no prison. Bad news for our town, Kemptville. Say good-bye as well to Council’s much ballyhooed Tourism Study. Thanks Mr. Ford.

Will you give us ANY warning next time?

In conclusion, I have to stop writing now or Dr. Shanahan (and others) will accuse me of being longwinded. Vraiment? Moi? But I encourage you to research all aspects of the “economic benefit of a jail argument” and not fall for half-baked stock assertions of benefit for all. They just aren’t there. Require that your Council do more than back away into accommo- dating, non-leadership posi- tions- (“It’s above our pay grade”– “Let’s look at the silver lining” , etc.,) – on this topic, as some will try to do. I am no longer on Council to lead on matters like this which require strong spirited dissent, so you yourselves will have to create pressure in resistance to what is surely a bad deal for Kemptville over the intermediate to long term. Check the municipal website for e-mail addresses. Write to your Councillors. Write e-mails to your MPP with cc’s to all and sundry in the media world. Stand up for your neighbours, your kids, yourselves. You may even decide to mention possible future voting intentions. I have.

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