Keri Blakinger’s “Inside Out” is a partnership between NBC News and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system. The column draws on Blakinger’s unique perspective as an investigative and formerly incarcerated journalist.
In 1998, hundreds of enthusiastic Nebraskans gathered in the gymnasium of Tecumseh High School to express their support for a new venture in town: a state-of-the-art maximum security prison.
Authorities were eagerly anticipating hundreds of jobs, a population boom and increased investment by local businesses. One resident compared it to qualifying for the Orange Bowl, and The Omaha World-Herald described the windfall the lockdown would bring as a “lottery jackpot” for the city of 1,700.
More than two decades later, those promises ring hollow in Tecumseh, where the 960-bed facility has become more of a burden than a godsend, adding to the city’s legal costs while doing little to help the city’s economy. city to develop. Other communities have taken note. Now, as Nebraska officials counter the national trend of prison closures and seek to erect a new mixed-security facility, they are finding few takers.
“The last time we had a new prison… several cities made offers for it,” said Doug Koebernick, the inspector general whose office provides independent oversight and responsibility for Nebraska prisons. “But not this time. I think there are several reasons for this, including the realization that it is not really an engine of economic development.
The proposed 1,500-bed facility would be the largest in the state and would require approximately 460 workers to operate it.
Richard Grauerholz, the mayor of Ashland, was approached last year about the possibility of hosting a prison. He said residents of his city of 2,500 prefer to work in metropolitan areas. Omaha and Lincoln, the state’s largest cities, are about a 30-minute drive away.
“There isn’t a large labor pool here,” he said. “And I spoke to people in Tecumseh.”
Officials from Waverly and Wahoo, other towns along the Omaha-Lincoln corridor, told local media last year that they were also approached to host the new $ 230 million prison, but that ‘they weren’t interested. It is not clear whether the prison system has found interested towns.
“Since the proposal is still in its very early stages,” a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Corrections said, “it is not appropriate for us to speculate on who is or is not not interested at the moment. ” The director of the state prison system declined a request for an interview.
When I was in jail 10 years ago on a drug charge in upstate New York, we never thought about whether the locals wanted us there. All we knew was that we were in a small town far from where most of us lived and far from our families. We never asked if these aging prisons in rural New York City were helping the cities that host them – but from our bus rides from the prison, it certainly didn’t look like it. It was only later that I realized that while it is best for many prisoners to stay near towns, where they can nurture the relationships they will need to be successful on the outside, it is not the places where building a prison looks good for economic development. Looking good, however, is not the same as helping.
Decades ago, when prisons began to proliferate in rural America, correctional facilities were seen not as an economic boon but as unwanted neighbors. New lockdowns raised concerns about escapees and falling property values, and sparked old-fashioned NIMBYism. But in the mid-1980s that started to change, when people realized that prisons meant stable jobs for the government.
“What was once a decidedly junk business has now become the center of stiff competition among communities looking to boost the local economy,” Jeanie Thies, professor of political science at Lindenwood University, wrote in an article. from 1998. A town in Illinois even went so far as to write and sing a song: “Is We Is or Is We Isn’t Gonna Get Ourselves a Prison?” – as a plea to the State site selection committee.
Since then, studies have shown that prisons are not the jackpots promised in the past. In 2003, The Sentencing Project, which advocates shorter prison terms, found that the new prisons were not necessarily helping local economies, and the rural counties that built prisons followed a similar economic trajectory to those that did not. have not.
“The prisons have contributed very little to the local economy, because unlike other types of employment, where there are links with other businesses in the region, the prisons have not bought things locally”, Thomas Johnson, a retired University of Missouri professor who studied prison towns, told me. “People were generally disappointed because they hadn’t brought the jobs – and the jobs they brought were mostly not the kind of jobs the locals wanted anyway.”
It seems that was true in Tecumseh. But there were other unexpected drawbacks. The county has been forced to pay for autopsies of incarcerated people, grand juries to investigate jail deaths, defense attorneys for those accused of committing new crimes behind bars, and costly prosecutions resulting from a prison riot in 2017 that left one dead.
“At the time, they said there would be no additional costs to the county or town due to the jail,” said Ted Evans, Johnson County Commissioner, which houses Tecumseh, referring to state officials. “Obviously, either they didn’t tell us the truth or they didn’t realize the cost. “
The lockdown has boosted some businesses along Highway 50, he said, but it hasn’t spurred growth. Lots of prison workers commute instead of moving to town, and the population is actually smaller than it was two decades ago.
Last year, during testimony before a state legislative committee, Department of Corrections director Scott Frakes admitted that the Tecumseh site had not performed as expected.
“Tecumseh’s problem at the start was unfortunately just no one to lean on,” he said, referring to staffing issues, “and that mistaken belief that repeated itself across the board. country that if you build a prison near a small community, it will expand the economy. “
This “mistaken belief” has spread across the country. What’s unique now is how Nebraska so publicly views countering this trend.
In an era of declining incarceration rates, most places do not discuss whether to build a new prison; Texas, Florida, California, New York and Connecticut have all announced plans to close jail in the past year.
In Nebraska, the prison population has grown by more than 25% in the past 15 years, in part because of longer sentences and an increase in recidivism. By the end of last year, state lockdowns were over 150% full, but state officials still seem cautious about the huge new spending.
“Money is always a concern,” said Rep. John Stinner, the Republican who chairs the state’s credit committee. “When you’re building something that’s going to last 50 to 100 years, you just want to make sure you have all the facts and consider all the other alternatives.
In recent months, it seems the plan has changed. While the new prison was originally designed as a way to add several hundred more beds and reduce overcrowding, a report released this spring touted it as a replacement for the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, which is smaller and needs almost $ 200 million in repairs.
In March, Stinner’s committee voted to set aside about half of the money needed to build the new facility – though he didn’t actually own it, so it can’t be spent. For now, they are asking for a study on how to reduce the prison population by decreasing recidivism, even as the agency is asking for design bids for the new facility. The proposals are expected on June 21 – but they will still have to find a Nebraska community ready to welcome a potentially expensive new neighbor.