Farm Belt towns don't mind prison Jobs: Once-prosperous rural towns spurned the idea, and even sued to prevent it. Now they are competing against each other for this hot new industry: prisons.


CAMERON, Mo. -- At a topping-off party for Cameron's nearly completed new industrial plant -- over a long buffet table loaded with ribs, cured ham and smoked turkey-- more than 400 people were celebrating the return of bright times.

Granted, local officials agree, this is not a prestigious deal like landing IBM or AT&T;, but the plant is another sign that rural America is recovering from the economic downturn that struck in the 1980s.

When the facility opens, it will bring 250 jobs and increase Cameron's population by 1,000. Best of all, it is part of one of the nation's fastest-growing, most recession-proof industries: prisons.

"We went fishing for perch and came up with catfish," says Shelby Heandee, the town's development chief. "But I'll tell you this: We're not going to throw it back."

Cameron's prison, its second, will open in February, tucked out of sight, just off the main road to town, near a Wal-Mart.

With its cluster of rambling, green-roofed buildings, it resembles a junior college more than the maximum-security prison that it is. Gone are the traditional fortress-like stone walls and guard towers. In their place will be a lethal electric fence and motion detectors.

A generation ago, rural America found the notion of accepting a prison so repellent that many communities sued their state governments to keep them out.

But then recession hit the Farm Belt, and towns began casting about for a growth industry that could stabilize their economies. What dozens came up with was the criminal-justice system.

Soon the urban crime wave became a rural bonanza.

With the United States building prisons at a rate never before seen -- 123 state and federal prisons opened or are under construction this year -- small towns from California to Florida are battling to get a penitentiary in their back yard. In many cases they are offering free land, utilities and cash incentives for the chance to get a slice of what is turning out to be the public works megaproject of the 1990s.

In jobs, prisons are doing for small towns what military bases did during the Cold War.

In Washington state, 19 communities are campaigning for a juvenile-rehabilitation center on the drawing board. In Florida, 15 towns have offered free land for a new state prison. In Missouri, 12 towns are vying for three prisons.

The 2,976 residents of Bowling Green, Mo., approved an $11 million bond issue for road and utility work and sent civic leaders to the capital with local apples, candy and buttons to tout the town as the site for a prison. The $67 million facility they won will bring $150,000 a year in taxes and has stimulated additional development: a housing subdivision, a fast-food restaurant and a motel.

"We worked hard to get it, competing against a lot of other towns, and we're really proud," says Joe Smith, administrator of Bowling Green, where the prison's roof will be painted red to match the color of the high school sports teams.

Until recently, small towns such as Bowling Green and Cameron had viewed prisons, with their wall-to-wall populations of undesirable characters, as orphans of economic development. But now that crime-fighting has become a $100-billion-a-year growth industry, prisons are considered a prime catch, equal to a major department store or a light manufacturing plant. They don't pollute; they don't go out of business; they don't get downsized.

Cameron, 50 miles north of Kansas City, had seen its fortunes decline in the 1980s, despite a choice location off Interstate 35, which runs from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minn. Stores were going out of business on Main Street. No homes had been built in years. The population was slipping away.

"We tried to attract industry, but not much happened," says Craig Watkins, publisher of the weekly Cameron Citizen Observer.

Then Watkins heard that Missouri was looking for a site for a minimum-medium-security prison. He and several community leaders began rallying support to lure the 2,000-bed facility. They beat out 30 other rural communities. The Western Missouri Correctional Center opened on the outskirts of town in 1989.

Cameron annexed the land two years ago, adding 2,000 felons to its population of 4,782.

Most important, the annexation increased to about $50,000 a year Cameron's share of the 17-cent-a-gallon gas tax that Missouri distributes to towns on a population basis. With its windfall the town built a headquarters for the police and fire departments.

The boom in prison construction began in the late 1980s, when urban crime became a political and social issue and courts began demanding prison reform to alleviate crowding. Even as the crime rate is dropping nationally, the prison population is growing.

"A lot of the construction boom has to do with changes in our criminal statutes -- minimum mandatory sentences, three strikes and you're out, the end of parole," says Robert Verdeyen, director of standards at the American Correctional Association in Lanham, Md.

The nation's prison and jail populations, now 1.6 million, have tripled since 1980. Including the number on parole or probation, 5.3 million are under the jurisdiction of the criminal-justice system.

In some cases it costs taxpayers $30,000-$50,000 a year to keep an inmate locked up. But even that expense is not likely to curtail the prison construction boom -- or the prison population -- as long as the nation as a whole supports the "get tough on criminals" philosophy.

The rush to get criminals off the streets has benefited more than small-town America, where inexpensive land, reliable and cheap labor, and the presence of relatively few labor unions make them desirable sites for new prisons.

Inmates themselves have become valuable commodities, much like the parts manufactured in a factory. Private companies have emerged to run prisons and to broker the transportation of inmates between states by chartered jet and bus when individual penitentiaries reach capacity. Cameron's existing prison, for example, was designed for 2,000 inmates but houses 2,600.

Smith Barney Inc. and Merrill Lynch & Co. have underwritten tax-exempt bonds for prison construction. Several architectural companies have started prison design studios. And when construction began on Cameron's new maximum-security prison, the design crew included a color coordinator.

States have had to divert money from other programs for the prison boom. "All of us look at the futility of having to spend money on prisons," says Gov. John Engler of Michigan, where the prisons employ one in four state workers.

Prisons can strain city services and result in demands for housing that is unavailable. Citizens worry that inmates will hang around once they are released. In some cases, small towns with prisons have had to extend their police departments' on-duty hours to round-the-clock, not because residents are less safe but because residents want the security of knowing someone is on duty.

Pub Date: 10/12/96

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