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Is a Private Detention Center Good for Caldwell County's Economy?

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The debate over the recently proposed Caldwell County detention center, proposed by private prison corporation Emerald Companies, has largely centered on the inflammatory comments of Charles Law, mayor pro tem of the City of Mustang Ridge and a local water board official. Law called the detention center a "holding pen for wetbacks" and has been rightly condemned for his comments. In January, a similar proposal was defeated after widespread community opposition on the other side of the county.

Ignored in the debate about the current Emerald proposal has been one of the key driving forces behind detention center expansion in rural Texas - the idea that building a prison will stimulate the local economy and create jobs. Which begs the question, does building a prison or detention center in a rural community help the local economy? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no. And it points to one of the most persistent myths surrounding prisons and detention centers - that they are good for rural economies. In fact, the exact opposite appears to be true.

According to multiple studies on prisons and economic development, rural counties that build prisons actually end up worse off than those that do not. According to one of the most comprehensive study on the topic, The Prison Industry: Carceral Expansion and Employment in U.S. Counties, 1969-1994, rural counties with slow-growing economies that built prisons actually fared worse than comparable counties that did not build prisons. In faster-growing areas, prisons had no positive economic benefit.

The reasons for this outcome aren't entirely known, but researchers have offered several hypothesis.

  1. The so-called "prison-town effect" where large prisons deter more beneficial businesses from wanting to come to a community while at the same time scaring off tourism and other industries reliant on a positive community image.
  2. Prisons can drain scarce public resources such as water hook-ups and other utilities, law enforcement, and road construction monies.
  3. These factors are compacted by private prisons where "profits" from the facility are taken out of the community and given to shareholders or invested in future prison and detention center expansion efforts.

Unfortunately, Carceral Expansion is not online in its entirity, but you can read a review of the study by University of Texas LBJ School professor Michele Deitch in the Considering a Private Jail? resource guide. These studies should provide food for thought for local public officials dealing with private prison or detention center proposals.