A Huge Roadblock to Criminal Justice Reform

I hike in the Adirondacks a few times a year. The region is huge, as it has over 6.1 million acres. There are 46 peaks, with the highest one being Mt. Marcy (5,343). Over 132,000 people live in the region year round, scattered through over 100 towns and villages. Over the years, the major sources of industry have included farming, mining, milling, and in more recent times, tourism and recreation. The Winter Olympics have been held there twice – in 1932 and in 1980 (the arena where the USA Hockey Team’s “Miracle on Ice” victory over the USSR is still in use in the center of Lake Placid).

Last February, a friend and I took a winter mountaineering class in Lake Placid, NY. I remarked to our instructor how far from a major city center the region is, and I asked her if tourism was the number one source of income for people that lived there. “No,” she replied, “it’s the prison industry.”

I’ve spent a little bit of time researching this, and I’ve determined that it’s extremely hard to determine what is the top industry in the Adirondacks. The list of prisons in New York State is so long that it is shocking. This map shows that a vast majority of them are located in rural areas. One researcher has been writing about the increase in the number of rural prisons for over two decade: a chilling 2002 paper can be read here. Whether it is the number one, three or five industry, it is obvious that the department of corrections is of vital importance to the economy of Northern New York.

Over a decade ago, the then-commissioner of the Connecticut Corrections System engaged in some major prison reform initiatives because it was too prohibitively costly not to. Her major push was for the early release of prisoners – in doing so, she saved her state tens of millions of dollars. With the economic collapse of 2007-08 and the subsequent further collapse of state revenues throughout the nation, both Republicans and Democrats are acknowledging the need for criminal justice and prison reform (here is an excellent article about it from the New Yorker this summer). You can read about the different stances that the various 2016 Presidential Candidates have taken here – regardless of their views, it is clear that criminal justice reform has become too expensive not to address.

Throughout the United States, state prisons cost over $50 billion dollars a year to run. This does not include capital costs (construction), nor does it include employee benefits and pensions (this falls under a different department); therefore, the yearly costs for maintaining state prisons is much higher than the advertised $50 billion.

It’s a big industry that employs a lot of people. A lot of these prisons are located in rural areas, and are major employers in those regions. Any discussion about cutting the size of prisons or closing some down are surely to be met with a rabid response from the people that work there. Prison employees are so numerous in some areas that they have real political power, as is illustrated in this 2013 article about the closing of two prisons in Pennsylvania:

But closing prisons is no easy feat. As a Texas legislator pointedly explained, prisons – often large employers in sparcely populated rural areas – develop their own political constituencies. Sen. John Whitmire, the longest-serving senator in the Texas Legislature, told the Patriot-News, “There are so damned many prisons in so many legislators’ districts, they’ve got a built-in lobby.

Democratic Sen. John Wozniak, who represents Cambria County, told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat he was concerned about the employees and contractors who rely on the prison at Cresson for their livelihood.

The Tribune-Democrat noted the prison is important to the economy of the region, quoting Linda Thomson, president of Johnstown Area Regional Industries, who said “First of all, they’re recession-proof, or likely to be there, and these jobs are highly sought after. They’re family-sustaining jobs, so good for the economy.”

Reforming drug policy, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike laws, and providing counseling and job training to prisoners and ex-offenders are all difficult goals to accomplish. They are that much harder when opposed by people who are fighting to keep prisons open and full in order to save their jobs (and provide for their families). Part of the discussion of prison reform must also include a plan to address what will happen to the people that work in prisons. Without it, meaningful reform will be even harder to attain.