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

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

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

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

Synopsis

A recent study by the Urban Institute estimates that one-third of all counties in the United States house a prison, and that our prison and jail population is now over 2.1 million. Another report indicates that more than 97 percent of all U.S. prisoners are eventually released, and communities are absorbing nearly 650,000 formerly incarcerated individuals each year. These figures are particularly alarming considering the fact that rural communities are using prisons as economic development vehicles without fully understanding the effects of these jails on the area.

This book is the result of author Eric J. Williams' ground-level research about the effects of prisons upon two rural American communities that lobbied to host maximum security prisons. Through hundreds of interviews conducted while living in Florence, Colorado, and Beeville, Texas, Williams offers the perspective of local residents on all sides of the issue, as well as a social history told mainly from the standpoint of those who lobbied for the prisons.

Excerpt

When I was in high school, a friend of mine was sentenced to several years in the Maine State Prison in Thomaston. I had gone to visit him a couple of times in the county jail while he was awaiting trial, my first visit to a jail. I distinctly remember wondering how a person could live day to day under those kinds of conditions. I later went to visit the man in the state prison. What I remember most was not the prison itself, but the town of Thomaston. Here was this idyllic coastal Maine town with towering pines and white colonial homes—something right out of a postcard. and yet what dominated the downtown was this huge, high wall that separated Maine’s only (at the time) maximum-security prison from the tourist-perfect postcard. the prison was built in 1824, just four years after Maine became a state, and it was operational until 2002. It was the disconnect between town and prison that I remember most, not what the visiting room was like or anything that was said between my friend and me that day.

My interest in prisons continued through graduate school, and this project was born out of that interest. I had thought that I would write my doctoral book on the new wave of supermax prisons that were being built across the country. But as I delved into the subject, what ended up being most striking to me was where and how these prisons were being built. Thomaston was eager to rid itself of the giant wall and prison the town housed in its midst. Meanwhile, in nearby Warren, Maine, the state built its replacement, a maximum-security and supermax facility, although the state rents out space in the supermax prison to other states (Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the country).

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