Friday, April 23, 2010

Repelling criminals and just about everyone else.

A few years ago I was assigned to collect demographics on the downtowns of a number of different American cities of varying sizes, from Detroit to Lafayette Louisiana, using carefully defined census tracts that correlated as well as possible from 1970 to 2000. We were hoping to find similar characteristics to the downtown dwellers across the country, whether the central business districts had mature and thriving residential populations or were largely moribund, with only a handful of brave souls claiming such an address. Most of our conclusions were unsurprising: downtowns typically had a higher percentage of poverty than the metro areas as a whole, significantly smaller households, more foreign-born persons, a higher percentage with college degrees, as well as those without a high school diploma, and (particularly in the economically healthy town centers) a high concentration of empty nesters and childless singles. However, one contingency we did not recognize until halfway through our research—and then had to double back and include—was the high percentage of incarcerated or institutionalized persons in downtowns. This segment of the population—usually the mentally ill or prisoners—can not participate in free enterprise to any large degree, so they are unable to partake in any of a downtown’s commerce or amenities. Despite their general sequestration from downtown living, the incarcerated undeniably exert an influence on urban culture.

And we’ve all seen the telltale hints that we’re in close proximity to a county jail, even if we aren’t always aware of it: bail bonds services will inevitably cluster nearby. In some instances, the prison is relatively inconspicuous, but the bail bonds companies nearly always announce themselves in neon. They drew my attention to the prison in downtown Chillicothe, the original capital of Ohio and a minor city at the edge of the state’s segment of Appalachia.

These storefronts dominate one side of Paint Street, the principal north-south arterial. Directly across from them sit the expected public buildings:

The Ross County courthouse is an archetypal center of Midwestern county seats, but the building adjacent to it (featured in the second of the two photos) is perhaps more interesting in the context of this discussion. The sign announces that it is the Ross County Chillicothe Law Enforcement Center—in short, the local jail. But the generously sized and plentiful windows, the multiple entrances directly off the sidewalk, and the absence of any plainly visible security measures betray the building’s confining intentions. It doesn’t look like a detention center, and I believe that two factors have influenced this deceptive appearance: it is a mere county operated jail for those in temporary custody while they await bail or a criminal trial; also, the designers intended for the building to be pleasing to the eye to avoid the negative impression people have of jails, both in terms of aesthetics and their punitive function.

Urban corrective centers pose a question that a cost-benefit analysis would most likely attempt to answer: does the logistical efficiency afforded to positioning a county jail adjacent to the courthouse supersede any efforts to revitalize a downtown? Chillicothe, I’m afraid, does not provide a clear solution, but at least it thoughtfully attempts to address this ostensible Catch-22. Detention facilities, it seems, carry with them a perception of making bad neighbors; it is rare that a community will rally in support of locating a penitentiary on the vacant land a block away. To a certain degree, this is understandable: virtually no one voluntarily chooses to live in an area with a high concentration of criminals. Yet at the same time it is ludicrous: with such intensive security infrastructure (not to mention armed guards) it may be one of the safest places in the region to live. But private developers are consistently chary to invest in real estate adjacent to correction centers, particularly when it comes to new residential construction. The perception is almost insurmountable that the area adjacent to a county jail has been compromised by the slight chance that a prisoner may escape and wreak havoc there. Without having researched the probabilistic comparisons, I’m willing to venture that the chances of a prisoner escaping then behaving violently in the vicinity are on par with a prisoner successfully concealing an escape tunnel behind a poster of Rita Hayworth. Nonetheless, it is not hard to spot a city jail because, besides the reliably austere architecture, it has the economic development impact of fertilizing a lawn with gasoline, thanks in no small part to our movie- and television-fueled perception of prison breaks.

So a corrective facility is a nuisance, more or less—not entirely different from a noisome hog farm or a noisy airport. But it is undeniably practical to situate a city or county jail immediately next to a courthouse, and it is inevitable that a courthouse will sit relatively close to the center of town—after all, it is one of the first buildings to appear in a community or jurisdiction of any reasonable political scale. Up to this point, I have measured my words, in order to apply the nomenclature correctly: the downtowns of cities like Chillicothe (and anything larger) typically host jails, not prisons. The distinction is critical. Jails are operated by a county or municipality and are thus numerous; the typically incarcerate individuals who were arrested within that same jurisdiction and are held in custody while awaiting a trial. Conversely, either the state or federal governments manage prisons, where the inmates have committed a crime of much greater severity, usually with sentences of at least two years. Prisons are much rarer, and—particularly in the federal ones—the incarcerated most likely came from significantly farther distances. It understandably follows that jails lack both the amenities (vocational training, drug rehab, work release) that prisons have, nor can they claim the same level of security infrastructure; they don’t usually need it the way prisons do.

The past few decades have witnessed a widening spatial dichotomy between jails and prisons. While jails have justified their place next to other municipal government buildings, prisons have become an increasingly rural phenomenon: they host the inmates who have committed more serious offenses, receiving longer sentences for crimes that are far more likely to be violent in nature. Imagine the nuclear-sized NIMBY rupture if a state or the federal government tried to locate a maximum security prison in a densely populated urban area. Needless to say, the downtown Ross County Chillicothe Law Enforcement Center is a short-term jail. But the much more sizeable Chillicothe Correction Institution (operated by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction) sits several miles north of town on State Route 104…next to the Ross County Airport.

Traci Huling’s essay, “Building a Prison Economy in Rural America
from the larger work Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, explores the simultaneous decline of rural America with the emergence of federal penitentiaries over the last forty years, often perceived as an economic development strategy to rescue these regions from persistently low wages and high unemployment. Towns much smaller and more remote than Chillicothe (which is about 45 miles south of Columbus) “have become dependent on an industry which itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditions.” Huling does not attempt to conceal her cynicism, as she recalls communities entering literal bidding wars to win the rights to host a new penitentiary (always safely removed from the city center), often for the added benefit of improved Census figures that will in turn earn them more political clout and federal financial aid, even though the source of the population gains are incarcerated residents who cannot vote. Small towns have even on occasion offered tax abatements for private prisons.

Yet Huling has no difficulty exploring the speciousness of recruiting a prison: many of the well-paying positions require skills not available among the local workforce so the management must import talent; the push to keep prisons safely ensconced amidst low-density farmland means the staff will have long commutes; the multiplier effect rarely applies and few prisons generate spin-off industries. Her litany of the negative impacts of rural prisons continues through many additional vignettes, all substantiated with citations that demonstrate the discomfort of this “Norman Rockwell meets Quentin Tarantino” scenario, but these vignettes remain at odds with the reality on the ground. The fact is, rural areas continue to entice private and public sector prisons for reasons often as simple as 1) it helps re-endow the community with a reason for being; and 2) it is far less likely to arouse objections than in a major city. Huling complains that small-town prisons rarely offer quality retail, instead encouraging Wal-Marts and McDonald’s that help kill the local businesses. But the fact remains that a Wal-Mart offers far greater tax revenue to a town than a whole host of small mom-and-pop establishments on Main Street, and affordable big-box retail may be exactly what such a community needs to keep its own population shopping and spending money within the municipal boundaries.

Chillicothe seems emblematic of the sort of economic push-and-pull that transpires when two corrective facilities sandwich the community. The small city no doubt struggles with many of the challenges that Traci Huling reveals in her essay, but its other alternative could be the objectively undesirable continued population decline. (In fact, Census figures suggest that, after losing population since 1960, the city has finally recovered slightly since 2000, based on recent American Community Survey estimates from 2008. Could it be a boom from the Chillicothe Penitentiary stimulated job growth in the area?) The rural prison might actually exert a measurable influence on the raw numbers, despite the negative social impacts—meanwhile the downtown jail only stymies the growth of preferred retail. As observed earlier, the blocks immediately surrounding the Law Enforcement Center aren’t exactly lively. We see the attractively disguised “jail” on one side of the street:

And on the other?

A domestic violence non-profit, criminal defense attorneys, and of course, the predictable bail bonds. I am by no means criticizing these essential services which will always accompany a county jail, but they hardly attract the foot traffic that more desirable retail would, and they’re not the stuff that vibrant smaller cities are made of. Joel Kotkin mused with equal cynicism when a verdant suburb of Philadelphia called Media, PA banned anything but retail on the first floors of buildings along Main Street . He recalls how this divisive zoning ordinance depends, by many locals’ perceptions, on a misplaced nostalgia for what a Main Street offered when the American economy was less dominated by services (or automobiles). He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t prevent a community for appropriating that nostalgia as the cornerstone for economic development; sometimes accessing the charm of yesteryear is the only opportunity for Main Street’s structures—and the small communities that host them—to get a second lease on life.

Thus, Chillicothe precariously situates itself between two potential economic development loci: a seemingly recession-proof incarceration industry and the heritage tourism of vibrant downtown filled with specialty retail. Can Chillicothe shoot and score with both? Downtown today is mixed bag, hardly flourishing but active enough to stay reasonably occupied just a block further from the county jail:

But then one encounters beautiful old buildings that seem incapable of finding a new identity, such as this one rotting on a prominent corner:

Chillicothe has to face the same question numerous communities of its size and smaller must confront: is the Wal-Mart/prison/Native American casino worth the potential drawbacks? It’s hardly a profound question, but the answers vary greatly from region to region, and it may be unfair of me to conflate them, since many small town economic development leaders would perceive a casino as an attractive alternative to the prison (or vise versa), and the Wal-Mart a suitable supplement to them both. When an observer regards the cultural shift of the incarcerated from urban to rural America with unfettered disapproval, he or she fails to account for the limited capacity small towns have at reinventing themselves with dwindling resources. At least most of our dying cities have a suburban bounty close at hand which, however impenetrable, still can add clout to the metropolitan region. Isolated rural communities might need the cataclysm that a prison offers in order to effect any change—and, for some of them, all change is positive. To criticize a small town for attract a Wal-Mart smacks of sneering paternalism.

My prognosis for Chillicothe is positive. It is undoubtedly trying to cultivate its history as Ohio’s original capital by linking it to some of its surviving building stock, some of which is in fairly good shape. It has an abundance of state parks nearby. And most importantly, it is growing closer to the current state capital of Columbus every day. Even though Columbus’ decentralization overwhelmingly favors the northern burbs and Chillicothe sits to the south, the town still rests on the outskirts of the successful capital’s sphere of influence and may soon re-emerge as a distant commuter suburb; it’s already part of Columbus’ Combined Statistical Area. Thirty years from now, the presence of a prison and a jail in Chillicothe may be a moot point. This small city may enjoy a renaissance as a bedroom community. And the prisons may have relocated to a new region in far greater need of an economic shot in the arm.


cdc guy said...

"Imagine the nuclear-sized NIMBY rupture if a state or the federal government tried to locate a maximum security prison in a densely populated urban area."

The Indiana Dept. of Corrections wanted to convert the Indiana Women's Prison (in a densely-populated are of Indianapolis' Near East Side) to a men's pre-release/out-processing center.

That is something that raised the spectre of "criminals loose in my backyard" and brought immediate and unanimous community opposition.

No one much loves the current Women's Prison location (and I suspect most who live east in Indy would favor its relocation to a rural setting), but folks absolutely hated the release-center idea.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks cdc guy. I think you articulated something there, of which I was vaguely familiar. The paranoia about prisons is often hyperbole; after all, Americans routinely vote to expand prison infrastructure as opposed to reducing it, which is why we have the largest prison system in the world. But the fact remains that a building surrounded by electrified barbed wire makes for an austere, uninviting neighbor.

Regardless of what some academics think about the negative sociological implications, I don't see the prison migration from the cities to rural America as likely to change any time soon. Huling, who I cited regularly, does not articulate an alternative location for prisons where they can co-exist symbiotically with the community. I suspect this is because her solution would be akin to "creating a compassionate society where people are less compelled to commit crimes and there is a reduced need for incarceration", or something like that.