Tom Barry at Border Lines has a couple of terrific posts implicating this phenomenon in reaction to the second riot in as many months protesting inadequate medical care at a private prison in Pecos, TX, housing immigrant detainees. Barry explains how the prison became more or less the only employer left in the county:
Literally, up in smoke:
In the early 1990s the town fathers envisioned another economic boom for Pecos. This time, though, not development dependent on nonrenewable resources -- water, oil, earth of the arid plains -- but on a resource that seemed to be ever rising in modern America. They dreamed of making Pecos a destination for prisoners.
They could offer a remote location, a county willing to issue nearly $100 million in revenue bonds for prison construction, and a downtrodden, , desperate, despairing workforce left behind by previous booms. All this would make Pecos "competitive," as county officials say, in a national market that seemed bust-proof.
Not only was the system of crime and punishment in America producing tens of thousands of more prisoners every year. The number of detained and imprisoned immigrants was also rising exponentially. The year that the first of the three Reeves County prisons opened Congress was passing legislation that would start a new era of criminalizing immigrants. With nearly a million illegal immigrants streaming into the country each year, the demand for prisons to hold these immigrants until deportation seemed boundless.
Initially called the Law Enforcement Center with capacity of some 900 "criminal aliens," Reeves County has expanded the prison to three units with a total capacity of more than 3,700. The contracts with the Bureau of Prisons and GEO Group and the revenue bonds note that this may be just the beginning of the dream of making Reeves County the nation's immigrant prison capital. Someday, the prison may expand to 7,000 prison beds if all goes well.
Although owned by Reeves County, the detention center is managed and operated by GEO Group, the world's second largest prison corporation.
Now the dreams of county officials and many county residents are going up in smoke.
As immigrant prisoners repeatedly riot at the Reeves County Detention Center in Pecos, there is palpable concern in this West Texas town not about the condition of the inmates, who have set fire to the prison to protest lack of medical attention, but about the future of "economic development."Bottom line, the whole concept of prisons as economic development was a flawed idea that never panned out the way it was hyped. Remote locations make rural prisons difficult to monitor and staff, and Texas has been forced to close wings at two rural units while TYC is moving to eliminate its most remote facilities. As it turns out, prisons produce a relatively small economic multiplier effect (see this report from the Sentencing Project) while other investments - in education, healthcare, and transportation infrastructure, for example - give much more job-producing bang for the buck.As smoke rose over the town, county residents and officials expressed anger that the imprisoned immigrants were endangering their livelihoods and county financial stability. More than three-hundred county residents are employed at the prison, and the county desperately needs a high inmate county to get the per diems ("man-days") from the federal government to pay down its revenue bonds.
See more coverage of the riot in Pecos from Texas Prison Bidness.