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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Job Creation Can Never Justify Prisons

Incarceration is an evil, and it’s unconscionable to do it for the sake of employing people. We need public works projects that uplift people rather than those that increase human suffering.

The New York Times has run a sympathetic profile of a small town in California that is about to suffer a major blow to the local economy: the closure of a prison. Approximately half the adults in Susanville, CA work at one of the prisons located in the town. As part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s effort to reduce mass incarceration, the minimum-security California Correctional Center is scheduled to be closed in 2022. The residents of Susanville are not happy about this.

The town mayor has been frank: “Closing of the CCC would devastate the community of Susanville by putting approximately a thousand of our citizens out of work and crushing our local economy.” In the Times profile, we see Susanville families worried about their future. One had just installed “new landscaping and fencing so the two kids would have a nice place to play,” “an entirely new kitchen and new floors,” and “rows of lilac bushes lining the driveway.” Yet they are now having to put their house up for sale. The owner of the Morning Glory Dairy, which sells “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year of milk, eggs and ice” to the prison, warns he will have to lay off workers. Uptown Uniforms, “which for years has sold work shirts and pants to police officers, firefighters, and construction crew,” faces the prospect of a substantial drop-off in business. A local mortgage broker who has organized fundraising for a lawsuit to keep the prison open tells the Times: “We have it good […] That’s why we’re fighting to keep it.” The move to close the prison is classified as “vindictive” by one fourth-generation resident “whose family has real estate holdings, including motels that rely in part on business from families traveling from across California to visit incarcerated relatives.” The Times notes that “almost every aspect of the town’s economy and civic life, from real estate to local schools, depends on the prison.” A photo of a bulletin board at a local supermarket shows a disturbing set of handwritten notes accompanying $20 donation pledges to “FIGHT FOR CCC.” 

The Times notes that when the prison first opened in the 1960s, it set off an economic boom in the town. “Everyone was excited,” says one resident who lived here then. “Houses were to be built to accommodate the new employees. Teachers needed to be hired, stores prepared to expand, and almost every facet of the economy was set to take off.” 

It is fair to criticize the New York Times for the way it chose to handle this story. Craig Gilmore, co-founder of the Prison Moratorium Project, said on Twitter that it is “the latest public relations success of prison guards, the real estate business, [and] the Chamber of Commerce to convince us that we should keep people in cages to maintain jobs [and] real estate values [and] commerce.” Gilmore points out that the piece only briefly quotes one former inmate of the prison, Richie Reseda, who says that while “Susanville is described as a ‘happy little prison town’ that has created a pastoral life for many of its residents. I had a different experience.” Gilmore notes that the Times does not give Reseda space to elaborate on that experience—he has elsewhere called the prison “the most racist place I’ve ever lived,” with guards openly using the n-word to describe inmates. Nor does the Times mention darker aspects of the town’s culture—in a documentary called Prison Town USA, one resident says the authoritarian culture of the institution filters into people’s private lives: “I think it’s hard for you to turn off being in a position of authority all the time. You’re coming home and doing the same thing to your families. There’s a lot of domestic violence.” The economic anxieties of (white) town residents are the focus, with little attention to the effect the prison closure might have on, say, the families of the (mostly not white) incarcerated. Paying attention to the costs of the change but not the benefits—and some people’s pain over others—makes the article biased, shoddy journalism. 

It is still true, however, that real economic costs to Susanville will come from closing the prison. If people work at a prison, and the prison closes, they lose their jobs. If the population drops and the tax base disappears, public services are cut back, along with jobs for teachers, sanitation workers, and firefighters. (Local school administrators are already forecasting layoffs from the loss of correctional officers’ children.) If a store makes a living selling uniforms to guards, and a motel survives by renting rooms to families who have been forced to drive for hours out into the country for a fleeting visit with a loved one, the motel owner’s profits will suffer. The important question is: how should these facts enter into the public policy conversation?

Susanville residents, like those in other rural communities “revitalized” by the building of a prison, are open about the fact that they want the prison for reasons of economic self-interest. The Times notes that a similar announcement of prison closures in New York was condemned by “Republican officials who said the move would make the public less safe and cost too many jobs.” 

But while the effect of prisons on safety is a legitimate conversation to have, the argument that a prison should not be closed because it would “cost too many jobs” should never be accepted. Incarcerating people is an evil. It may be a necessary evil (I doubt it, personally), but even those who believe public safety requires some people to be caged for extended periods of time should agree that ideally we would not cage anyone. Decisions over how much caging is to occur, then, should be based solely on the question of whether it is necessary for reasons of justice or safety. “It will provide jobs for the people who must watch the cages” is not an acceptable justification.

If there is a public safety or justice rationale for imprisoning people, then that rationale should suffice. The amount of incarceration required by society should be discussed in justice and safety terms, and then the number of jobs that prisons will create should be “the number necessary to run the needed number of prisons.” If a prison is not needed for reasons of justice or safety, then keeping someone in it for the sake of a small town’s economy is morally unconscionable. 

A prison, let us remember, is a place where people’s basic human rights are taken away, where they are deprived of access to their friends and loved ones, where they are at risk of serious violence. It is a place of extreme sensory deprivation. You do not have to be a prison abolitionist to believe that nobody should be kept in such conditions unless all other reasonable options have been exhausted. 

We can have an argument about whether California’s decarceration policy is sound on safety and justice grounds, then. But the economic health of Susanville should not be a reason for incarcerating people. Accepting “jobs” as an argument for prisons creates an absurdity: it means paying people to perpetrate unnecessary human rights violations for the sake of keeping them employed. In this case, where we are dealing with a mostly white population being paid, and people of color being most of the people whose human rights are being deprived, it is especially twisted. 

We should immediately see, too, that it makes no economic sense whatsoever. Why would you pay people to unnecessarily keep others in prison when you could pay them to do absolutely anything else? Heck, paying them to guard an empty prison would be better than keeping inmates in the facility for the sake of job creation. Once we concede that the incarceration is unnecessary, there is no reason to do it for the sake of the town’s economy. Pay the guards to go and frolic in the field. Pay them to go and pursue their hobbies. But don’t keep a prison open because of “jobs.”

I think the anxieties of Susanville residents should be taken seriously, though, and they are even in some ways an indictment of (oh God, I hate using this word) neoliberalism. If the state and federal governments were carrying out their duty of making sure that the economy served everybody, there would be no need for the residents of Susanville to worry. The Times notes that the town has sued to stop the closure “rather than seeking out new industries to replace the prison.” This places the onus on the town residents to find a private-sector solution to the problem. It is true that for many decades this town was supported by what is essentially a big “public works project,” and that the government is pulling the plug on that public works project. That does cause disruption to the economic life of a place that is the government’s responsibility to fix, even if it doesn’t justify keeping the particular public works project (since that project would be “keeping people in cages unnecessarily”). This is a point made well by the former Susanville inmate, Richie Reseda: 

Though I disagree with anyone’s decision to make money exploiting people’s trauma, oppression, and bad choices, I understand that people in Susanville are humans who need to eat. It’s the California government who made them reliant on the punishment industry to survive, and it’s the state’s job to help them transition into less harmful means to sustain themselves. … Incarceration economies must become a relic of the past if we are going to create a new vision for California’s future. Every dollar of wasteful prison spending could be better invested in healthy and sustainable communities, creating new fiscal opportunities across the state.

Many residents of Susanville are deficient in empathy, because they do not see how perverse it is to use “jobs” as a justification for prisons. (It’s like using “jobs” as a justification for a government program paying people to hit each other with sticks—or opposing single-payer healthcare on the grounds that the private insurance industry employs millions of people) But it is also the case that the people of Susanville are in a difficult situation. A whole community has become economically dependent on a big public institution. When the institution goes, homeowners will see their property values collapse. The motel owner may see their motel suddenly become worthless. The effects are no different to when a giant private-sector factory closes and decimates a town. 

None of this would be a problem in a country where everyone was guaranteed a well-paying job. But we don’t, and this creates a serious problem for public policy. The problem in Susanville is the same as the problem in West Virginia, where a national transition to clean energy will throw coal miners out of work. Of course a town that has been built up around the fossil fuel industry will oppose efforts to end that industry. Of course rural areas that depend on prison funding will not want to see their prison funding cut off.

This is one reason why those of us on the left embrace a “New Deal” framework. The Green New Deal’s massive public investments and job guarantees are in part an effort to ensure that people have nothing to fear economically from climate policy. If you impose the costs of climate policy on working people, they will understandably revolt. If you make sure that the transition away from fossil fuels is as painless as possible, they’re less likely to. 

Not everyone understands this. Bill Gates, for instance, is baffled by the inclusion of a job guarantee in the Green New Deal framework: “You’re going to give everyone a job, and you stuck that in a climate bill? You must not be serious about climate. You must be singing the theme song of the Internationale and reading Marx.” But it’s because the architects of the GND are serious about climate that they think about designing a policy that can attract broad public support.

The Times article on Susanville discusses the excitement that residents first felt when the prison came to town. Schools opened, money flooded in, and the whole place transformed. That excitement seems somewhat sick when we think about the human misery it was dependent on. But there is something to be learned here: giant public works projects have the capacity to transform communities. They will attract the loyalties of those communities. People will be grateful for them. 

This is why the Democratic Party needs to reverse its neoliberal turn. The people in Susanville are ¾ Trump voters. They cling to the prison because they see no alternative. They are not being given a solar power plant or an e-bike factory. But they could be. The “jobs” justification for prisons only works because nobody is proposing replacing the prison with anything. 

We can never accept that incarceration is justified as a make-work program for rural towns, even though in many places that is what it has become. It’s a tragedy when there are places that defend unnecessary, harmful industries on the grounds that they provide jobs. Instead, the decarceration movement needs to be coupled with a clear and bold vision for what kinds of public investments we need to make instead. Communities should not be built around prisons (or coal mines, or weapons factories). But we need a positive alternative for them to be built around instead. 

More In: Criminal Punishment

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