Prison closures put workers in a jam

Marketplace Staff Jun 7, 2010

Prison closures put workers in a jam

Marketplace Staff Jun 7, 2010

Prison officials in New Zealand have come up with an unusual solution to their problem of prison overcrowding. The Kiwis have one of the highest incarceration rates among developed economies. So they’re going to turn used shipping containers into prison cells. They figure they can fit six prisoners into each one of ’em and save a bundle in construction costs at the same time.

The United States, of course, has the highest incarceration rate in the world. But state prison populations here are actually dropping. Hopeful news on the face of it — but a problem in some rural areas, where prisons provide some of the most secure and best-paying jobs.

By Zachary Barr

Brush, Colo. is a small community on the plains that used to be known for sugar beets. Farming’s still king here — the mascot for the high school is the Beetdigger. But these days, one of the biggest employers in town is the prison.

Inside the High Plains Correctional Facility, a dozen or so women chat in the corridor outside their cells. This private prison was built just seven years ago; it’s one of the more than 250 for-profit prisons operating in the U.S. But by the end of this month, all 200 women locked up here will move out.

“The state’s going to go ahead and pull the contract, close us — not close us, but cease operations,” said Ron Murray, the prison’s warden.

Colorado’s Department of Corrections says it no longer needs this prison, because it now has enough spare beds in state-run facilities. More than 50 employees are going to lose their jobs.

And 250 miles from here, workers at another Colorado prison are already unemployed. Walsenburg’s private prison closed back in March.

“We’ve got the guard towers over here, which are no longer in use,” said Bonnie Rose, who worked at the now-shuttered Huerfano County Correctional Center for nine years. She says she loved being a correctional officer, and the pay.

“I probably will not be able to find another job where I can make the amount of money that I was making here. You’re lucky if you can make 15 bucks an hour in this area,” she said.

“You lose 180 jobs in a county of 8,000, that’s a big loss,” said Larry Patrick, who writes for Walsenburg’s weekly newspaper.

He says the city used to rake in $300,000 a year just from the prison’s utility bills. And the county’s going to lose even more money — that’s because the 700 prisoners left Huerfano County for their home state just before April 1, Census Day.

“Prisoners count to where they’re located, and we lost $6.3 million, total, for the 10 years,” said Patrick.

That money now goes to Arizona. That’s because Arizona found space in its public prisons for its own inmates. And in many states that’s now a possibility.

“The state prison population has dropped for the first time in nearly 40 years. It’s a small drop, but it’s nonetheless significant, because most people thought it was just going to continue up and up and up,” said Adam Gelb, who is with the Pew Center on the States.

The drop is small, 0.3 percent — just 5,000 inmates nationwide. Gelb says the recession’s playing a big role — states flat out need to cut spending. On top of that, the national crime rate’s declined for 17 straight years. With these factors in mind, Gelb says lawmakers are shifting their stance on sentencing.

“More and more policy makers are realizing there are research-based strategies that can produce public safety at far less cost than a $25,000-a-year, tax payer-funded prison cell,” said Gelb.

For instance, Colorado recently joined other states in passing new sentencing laws that will mean fewer low-level offenders doing time. But, remember, that 0.3 percent drop in population? That’s down from the all-time high, meaning there are still 1.4 million people in state prisons.

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