Towns Sad to See Prisons Go (WSJ)

by Chris Sturr | January 26, 2009

From today’s WSJ. In an earlier post we reported some people’s speculation that state and local fiscal problems will lead to a decline in the prison population. We’re not so sure; people have made similar claims in earlier downturns, but the prison boom keeps on booming. What’s stunning about this article is how open people are about taking advantage of forced labor. Not that we are against prison labor—prisoners ought to be able to work (and indeed, get paid, and form unions, like other workers). But keeping a prison open so that towns can continue to use prison labor? These towns are sad. And the original headline of the article (“Towns Are Sad to See Their Prisons Leaving the Scene of the Grime”) deserves its own separate groan.

By JENNIFER LEVITZ | JANUARY 26, 2009

CHARLESTON, Maine—One morning recently at the town hall here, Selectwoman Terri-Lynn Hall set out some fresh coffee, crackers and dip for the cleaning crew. “I also make ‘em turkeys, bake ‘em hams, and serve spaghetti,” she said—”with homemade sauce.”

One of the crew, Rex Call, put down his mop and helped himself to a piping hot mug of joe. “I’d rather be working here than sitting in the cell all day,” said Mr. Call, who—when he’s not out on work-release—is serving two years in state prison for car theft.

Although many people fight fiercely to block prisons from coming to town, Charleston and other communities are feeling an opposite impulse these days. They are fighting to keep their prisons from going away.

Many states, including Maine, Ohio, Washington and New York, want to close or consolidate prisons to save money. Here in Maine, Gov. John Baldacci wants to mothball part of Charleston Correctional Facility and relocate nearly 40% of the inmates, which would cut work-release crews.

But this farming town of 1,500 wants its criminal element to stick around. Town leaders say they don’t know what they will do without the free or ultra-cheap labor the jailbirds provide. “Oh my goodness, gracious, they are such an asset — they are our public-works department,” said Ms. Hall.

Last year, Charleston’s prisoners did 39,337 hours of community work, prison officials say, roughly the equivalent of 19 full-timers. Inmates maintain the five local cemeteries, set up election booths and hang Veteran’s Day flags. They built the log-cabin “snack shack” at a local park, and helped bust up beaver dams in a stream that runs along Bacon Road.

When a minimum-security prison was built in downtown Wooster, Ohio, a decade ago, “we took a lot of heat” from people who didn’t want it, says Capt. Charlie Hardman of the sheriff’s department there. But now that budget cuts could close the facility, he says, “People are concerned. Who is going to pick up the litter?”

Read the rest of the article.

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