Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation

Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation

by John M. Eason

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For the past fifty years, America has been extraordinarily busy building prisons. Since 1970 we have tripled the total number of facilities, adding more than 1,200 new prisons to the landscape. This building boom has taken place across the country but is largely concentrated in rural southern towns.

In 2007, John M. Eason moved his family to Forrest City, Arkansas, in search of answers to key questions about this trend: Why is America building so many prisons? Why now? And why in rural areas? Eason quickly learned that rural demand for prisons is complicated. Towns like Forrest City choose to build prisons not simply in hopes of landing jobs or economic wellbeing, but also to protect and improve their reputations. For some rural leaders, fostering a prison in their town is a means of achieving order in a rapidly changing world. Taking us into the decision-making meetings and tracking the impact of prisons on economic development, poverty, and race, Eason demonstrates how groups of elite whites and black leaders share power. Situating prisons within dynamic shifts that rural economies are undergoing and showing how racially diverse communities lobby for prison construction, Big House on the Prairie is a remarkable glimpse into the ways a prison economy takes shape and operates.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226410487
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/06/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

John M. Eason is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Texas A&M University.

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Big House on the Prairie

Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation

By John M. Eason

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-41048-7


Introduction: The Causes and Consequences of the Prison Boom

From its greatest cultural export, blues music, to the production of staple crops like cotton, life in the Mississippi Delta is defined by race and racism, perhaps more than anywhere else in the United States. While Forrest City, Arkansas, is hailed as the birthplace of rhythm and blues singer the Reverend Al Green, it was named to honor a more nefarious association. "Forrest's Town" was named after Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. Credited with founding the town in 1870, Forrest is best known for starting the most infamous domestic terrorist organization in US history, the Ku Klux Klan. This legacy of racism is still palpable in Forrest City, with the Confederate flag prominently displayed on cars, in the county museum, and at the county fair.

Like many Delta communities, Forrest City faced a shifting economic and social landscape after the fall of Jim Crow. In the late 1980s, its white leadership — the top political brass, including the mayor, the director of the chamber of commerce, the state representative, and a county judge — began meeting to discuss the possibility of bringing a prison to the "Jewel of the Delta." At a distance, many activists would characterize these meetings as the stuff of smoke-filled back rooms, with good ol' boys hatching a white supremacist conspiracy to subjugate African Americans in a neoplantation prison-industrial complex. But there is a complication. If acquiring a prison involves such sinister schemes, why do so many rural communities that push for and receive prisons contain disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic residents? In Forrest City, black leaders, too, agreed that the arrival of a prison might stop the town's economic slide. This complicates how we normally think about the process of becoming a prison town.

The prison town — a nonmetropolitan municipality that has secured and constructed a prison for a federal, state, or private operator — is a strategic site to investigate the intersection of race, spatial disadvantage, and the expansion of the criminal justice system. Forty years ago, there were 511 prison facilities in the United States. Since then we have embarked on an unparalleled expansion, constructing 1,152 new facilities. This dramatic growth in prison building is known as the prison boom (Garland 2001; Western 2006). Many scholars believe the prison boom to be the logical consequence of the annual imprisonment of more than two million Americans. However, this line of thinking cannot explain why some states build more prisons than others. For example, Illinois, Georgia, and Ohio have roughly 50,000 inmates each in state prisons, but the states house their prisoners in different numbers of facilities (from Illinois's fifty-five to Georgia's eighty-two).

Prior to the boom, prison building was not as salient for rural locales because of the relative availability of other large-scale economic development opportunities like factories, mills, or even military bases. In fact, most towns protested the placement of LULUs (Locally Undesirable Land Uses) like prisons for fear of being associated with a stigmatized institution. Starting in the 1970s, this trend shifted in regard to correctional facilities, with some rural towns lobbying to win a prison. Despite the varied motivations that produced this shift, one thing is clear — few scholars have actually examined the impetus for the "demand" for prisons in rural towns or the subsequent impact of these facilities. The journalism and sparse academic work on this topic frame prison building as a zero-sum game with rural white communities benefiting from the mass imprisonment of poor, urban, black, and Latino communities.

The dominant narrative on prison building also suggests that they are bad for communities — not only the urban communities from which most prisons are believed to draw their populations but also the communities where prisons are built. Moreover, because prisoners are stigmatized and prisons are not aesthetically attractive, many argue that communities should voice NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) and oppose placement. I reveal that prison building is often the best of the last options for town leaders hoping to manage the spoiled identity accompanying the rise of the rural ghetto. By investigating the process of how a town pursued and secured a prison I trace elite decision making, revealing the multiple, and often conflicting, factors in prison placement.

Prison building is often portrayed as a dichotomous decision for communities. On one hand, prisons present the potential for economic development. On the other, prisons are believed to stigmatize rural places. By describing the process that culminated in the placement of the Forrest City Federal Correctional Facility (FCFCF), we can begin to understand the multiple social, political, and economic shifts that drove the United States to triple prison construction in just over thirty years. Forrest City's campaign to win a prison helps explain how rural communities get from NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) to PIMBY (Please in My Backyard). This study also complicates the iconic imagery of rural southern communities (for example, quaint/gentle and backward/violent) by unearthing the complex networks and nuanced negotiations undertaken by local elites in acquiring a federal prison. Not only do I chronicle the political process of prison placement, but I also use local perceptions to show the good, bad, and ugly sides of prison impact.

Thinking about the Prison Boom

The term "prison proliferation" refers to the widespread construction of prison facilities throughout the United States. To date, we have constructed 1,663 prisons, employing on average 231 individuals with annual profits exceeding $40 billion, at a cost of over $20,000 annually to house each inmate. There are many ways we can think about the causes and consequences of prison proliferation. The sociology of punishment seeks to explain how punishment affects society (Garland 2001). A segment of this research agenda describes a prison-industrial complex (PIC). The PIC perspective is central to discourse on prison building. Eric Schlosser (1998) defines the PIC as "a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need" (54). His work has influenced a number of writers who refer to the PIC as an institutional dynamic in which vested economic interests actively promote prison construction and a punitive system of criminal justice. This theory can be summarized by the following empirical claims:(1) politicians exploit crime legislation to secure votes; (2) private companies seek profits by serving or operating prisons; and (3) rural town leaders use prisons for economic development. From the PIC perspective, the growth of prisons in rural communities suggests that prisons are solely a strategy for economic development.

Because white towns are believed to derive economic benefit from the imprisonment of black men through prison job creation, this exploitation has a racial dimension:

The ultimate policy irony at the heart of America's passion for prisons can be summarized by what I call "correctional Keynesianism"; the prison construction boom fed by the rising "market" of Black offenders is a job and tax-base creator for predominantly White communities that are generally far removed from urban minority concentrations. Those communities, often recently hollowed out by the de-industrializing family farm-destroying gales of the "free market" system, have become part of a prison-industrial lobby that presses for harsher sentences and tougher laws, seeking to protect their economic base even as crime rates continue to fall. (Street 2002, 36)

Street's commentary demonstrates how prison towns are believed to reify racial and economic stratification by punishing and incarcerating poor black and brown urban dwellers. Many scholars and journalists view the PIC's extension of the "peculiar institution" of racism as an oppressive catalyst generating jobs, capital investments, political power, and community pride in white rural prison towns (Schlosser 1998; King, Mauer, and Huling 2003). At the same time, the destructive apparatus of the PIC drives concentrated disadvantage in the hyperghetto by depriving communities of young black men in their prime years of employment and familial responsibility (Braman 2001; Clear 2001; Smith and Hattery 2008). Others claim the PIC reshapes the labor pool along racial lines, cordoning off blacks from the mainstream labor market (Smith and Hattery 2009).

Scholars assert that the ghetto "underclass" or "surplus population" (Darity 1983) was ripe for mass imprisonment. A journalist finds "most of America's huge prison population is Black or brown, and many of America's prisons are located in very White rural areas" (Tilove 2002). In some instances, blacks comprise nearly 80 percent of a state's prison population, while whites make up 90 percent of corrections officers (Wacquant 2001). In this view, the growth of the penal population redistributes economic resources, as the black underclass creates jobs for poor whites.

Other critics have found more overtly sinister goals in the PIC. These scholars and activists believe the prison boom intentionally produces racial and economic inequality for exploitation by private corporations, citing as evidence the growth of private prisons from 7 to roughly 12 percent of total prisons. However, because states operate most US prisons (roughly 83 percent), this extreme position does not hold; in fact, state-level characteristics are important predictors of prison placement. Furthermore, because prisons are primarily constructed by state legislatures, each state acts as a sorting mechanism for prison building. If we take the PIC account to be generally correct, two conclusions follow. First, the prison town is a space that exacerbates racial and economic inequality, driving the expansion of the criminal justice system by "demanding" increased prison construction. Second, the archetypical prison town is a space dominated by unemployed and impoverished whites. While the local context is important, larger social and political forces based on regional and state variations help to shape the context of punishment.

Even before beginning this study of Forrest City, I had identified evidence that challenged these bedrock assumptions of the prison-industrial complex. Prison placement does not result in disadvantage in rural communities as much as it is caused by racial and economic exploitation in rural communities (Eason 2010). Moreover, prison towns are diverse. They vary by size, region, socioeconomic status (SES), and racial composition (Eason 2010). Many prisons are built in micropolitan towns with populations ranging from 10,000 to 50,000. During the height of the prison boom, most prisons were built in southern towns with higher percentages of blacks and Latinos, and lower unemployment, than the average small town (Eason 2010). In fact, the average rural southern town was twelve times more likely to receive a prison than a midwestern or northeastern town. The characteristics of prison towns also vary across periods of the prison boom. This is not surprising, given the demographic shifts in rural communities over the past forty years. In addition, roughly a third of all corrections officers nationally are black or Latino (Ward 2006).

These findings complicate the PIC perspective in several ways. First, the role of disadvantage is paradoxical. In contrast to the PIC theory's central argument that rural prison placement is a windfall for towns and causes racial and economic inequality, my findings suggest that prisons are sited where rural disadvantage is already concentrated. Like urban disadvantage (Wilson 1987; Sampson and Wilson 1994; Wacquant 2001), concentrated rural disadvantage is marked by high poverty, residential segregation, and stigma. Studies show that rural blacks, like urban blacks, live in the most residentially segregated US census blocks (Aiken 1990; Lichter et al. 2007a; Wahl and Gunkel 2007; Cromartie and Beale 1980). Related studies suggest that black and Latino housing patterns are linked to concentrated poverty (Lichter et al. 2008). Therefore, we can think of racial and economic disadvantage in rural communities as fundamental to explaining the prison boom. Prison proliferation moreover benefits blacks and Latinos by providing employment as corrections officers. In a seminal piece, Everett Hughes (1962) describes the relationship between "Good People and Dirty Work" that explains why people believe that any job is a good job. The prevalence of prison building in the South suggests that southern culture may be germane in contextualizing the local "demand" for prisons (Cobb 1992; Reed 1994). Therefore, multiple factors (for example, region, rurality, race, and inequality) need to be accounted for in prison placement.

To account for the multiple, conflicting motives in prison building, the dominant narrative of the PIC needs to be reconsidered. The penal-industrial complex can be differentiated from the prison-industrial complex by its positive focus on punishment. In contrast, the PIC perspective casts prison building as a normative function of overt racism and deterministic capitalism. I improve on the penal-industrial complex as a theoretical anchor in explaining prison proliferation by expanding beyond the singular focus on jobs. This reframing allows us to understand the bureaucratic function of punishment and its role in the prison boom. I redefine the penal-industrial complex as the economic, social, and political institutions related to the causes and consequences of the prison boom.

Finding Forrest City: Fieldwork across Rural Neighborhood Ecology

Along the 130 miles between Memphis, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas, the horizon is perfectly flat, as if scraped by a giant bricklayer. You will find swamps, a Super 8 Motel, an adult store, a billboard hawking guns and ammo, and Forrest City, Arkansas. Its front door is the intersection of the second-largest commercial truck trafficking route in the country, Interstate 40, and the north–south corridor of Arkansas Highway 1 / Washington Avenue. Driving along the interstate on a warm summer night, we watched the sun nuzzle into the rice paddies growing up from the marshy land.

I relocated my African American family, including my wife and two small children, to the Yazoo Mississippi Delta to understand the decision making of local white elites about economic development. Given the stigma of prison, I wanted to learn firsthand why town leaders would lobby for placement. I chose Forrest City for this case study, in part, because it fit the economic and demographic profile of a disadvantaged rural southern community struggling to attract new economic development (Taub 2004). In many ways, it is also the prototypical prison town. The 2000 census showed that 36 percent of the roughly 14,000 residents were white, with 61 percent African American. The median family income was about half the national average of $50,000, and the poverty rate nearly triple, at about 33 percent.

The vestiges of the two-tier owner/worker Jim Crow system are omnipresent in the town's social structure and physical layout. Poverty is mainly concentrated in the lower town, west of Arkansas Highway 1 / Washington Avenue, while nestled in the hills east of Washington Avenue, off winding, almost secretive roads, many white elite families live in lavish single-family homes on large lots with immaculate lawns and well-sculpted gardens. Some of these families once ran cotton farms and still wield power statewide. Despite their physical proximity, these residents are socially distant. Most blacks growing up in the bottoms have never visited these homes; in fact, many did not think of them as part of Forrest City.


Excerpted from Big House on the Prairie by John M. Eason. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

One / Introduction: The Causes and Consequences of the Prison Boom


Two / Have you Seen My Backyard? Rural Ecology, Disrepute, and Prison Placement
Three / “It’s Like the City, Only Quieter”: Making the Rural Ghetto
Four / Finding Beauty in the Hideous: Prison Placement as Reputation Management
Five / How Not in My Backyard Became Please in My Backyard: Toward a Model of Prison Placement


Six / The Prison in My Backyard: Reconsidering Impact
Seven / The Tarnished Jewel of the Delta: Continuity and Change in Caste, Class, and Disrepute
Eight / Bringing Down the Big House: The Political Economy of Prison Proliferation

Methodological Appendix A
Methodological Appendix B
Works Cited

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