Plan for Prison Closures Stirs Fears

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

NORWICH, N.Y. -- On most mornings here, for about as long as anyone can remember, a green minibus arrives from the outskirts of town and discharges a crew of young men in look-alike gear: green pants and green or red sweat shirts. They rake leaves in the fall and shovel snow in the winter. They paint buildings and clean up debris. They helped put a roof on the county courthouse.

The workers rarely speak. "Just 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir,' " one city employee said.

The work crews are inmates from the nearby Camp Pharsalia, a minimum-security state prison tucked into a hillside a dozen miles outside town. For the city of Norwich, like other rural Upstate New York communities, the 110-inmate Pharsalia and other prison camps have become something of an economic lifeline, for decades providing not just manpower, but also jobs, in a region where work is hard to come by.

But with most governors and legislatures grappling with crushing budget deficits, what's good for rural economies is often proving bad for states.

New York is facing a $13 billion deficit, and a falling inmate population, and Gov. David A Paterson (D) has proposed saving about $26 million by shuttering four of the state's prison facilities, including Camp Pharsalia and nearby Camp Georgetown. Faced with the prospect of losing a big part of their economic base, these small, distressed towns and cities are banding together with a common cry: "Save Our Prison!"

"This is a major impact on a small community," said Paul Lashway, a Norwich resident and prison guard at Camp Pharsalia for the past 10 years. He is also a steward for the local corrections officers' union. "I thought we were trying to save jobs," he said. "Here, they're trying to take 'em." The prison union is leading an effort that includes lobbying the legislature, direct mailing and targeted radio ads in the affected communities.

It's a conflict being played out across the country. The number of inmates boomed in the 1980s and 1990s, in part because of high crime rates and stiff mandatory-sentencing laws that particularly targeted drug offenders. States rushed to build additional prisons to keep up with what appeared to be a growth industry. And many struggling, mostly rural, communities came to see prisons as a substitute for the family farms and the small manufacturing plants that were vanishing.

"Prison growth was a lot about economic development," said Tracy Huling, who produced a documentary about the phenomenon, titled "Yes, In My Backyard."

"It started in the '80s, when the farm crisis exploded across rural America," she said. "Agribusiness drove out family farms, and the economic base of a lot of rural communities just collapsed. In the absence of a real recovery strategy to address that, you have a lot of prisons."

The United States has the dubious distinction of being the country with the highest percentage of its citizens behind bars, more than one in a hundred, or 2.3 million people, according to the Pew Center on the States.

But a confluence of events has forced a fundamental rethinking. Crime rates have dropped sharply over the past two decades, and almost all states are facing budget deficits. Study after study has shown that giving nonviolent drug offenders treatment, instead of jail time, is far more effective at preventing repeat abuses. And it costs much more to keep a person incarcerated than to supervise him or her on probation.

As crime has receded as a major issue among voters, many state legislatures, including here in New York, are looking at rolling back mandatory drug sentencing laws. Some states, such as New Jersey, are experimenting with special "drug courts" for first-time offenders. Others, such as Rhode Island, have expanded "good time" early release programs or are allowing some prisoners to serve a portion of their sentences at home.

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