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On the use of prisons as political leverage

For years it’s been a bit of political common wisdom that prisons can serve as a tool for providing political assistance (or punishment) to politicians who represent struggling communities. You know how this goes: in hard hit, high unemployment areas, prisons are sold as “economic development” and the politicians who help get new ones located in their districts (or preserve old ones) frequently receive credit for helping to bring (or save) jobs.

In the current budget battle, it appears that the future of Bladen Correctional Center – a prison in the district of one of the five House Democrats who supported the Republican budget, Rep. William Brisson – has become a political football.

Here’s something to consider in the days ahead as the future of this and other such facilities is decided: the benefits to a community of having a prison may well be mostly illusory.

While there’s no doubt that having a prison around does bring at least some economic activity with it, the notion that it will bring lots of decently-paid, publicly-employed residents is probably inaccurate in most places.

This morning, I received a call from a knowledgeable resident of  a county that hosts a large prison in the southern part of the state. He reported that the vast majority of the prison employees — especially those with any kind of of higher-paying management responsibility — tend to commute from somewhat healthier nearby areas like Fayetteville and Moore County.  

My correspondent confirmed, however, that the prison did bring some extra activity to his town — namely, some of the friends and “business associates” of many of the prisoners had relocated to his town.

In this person’s view, maybe the biggest carrot that could be offered to Rep. Brisson and other lawmakers like him would be to promise to close their local prisons, not keep them open.

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