You’ve seen the phrase on Strong Towns time and again: “Cities across America are going broke.” But another way to say it is a little more direct: “Cities across America need money—and they need it soon.” And with last generation’s roads quickly crumbling and the costs of last generation’s suburban-style developments swiftly becoming clear, some towns may not even have the patience to do what most communities in a bind do to plug the gaps: lure a big private employer to deliver a big property tax windfall. No, these other cities either prefer to (or must) build a big revenue-generator themselves, and do it right now.
In rural communities especially, a prison, which can contract out beds to house county, state and even federal inmates at a profit, can seem like a great quick-cash bet. Best of all, if the profits don’t pencil out as you think, you can just sell that thing off to a private corporation that will run the space for you, giving you an immediate windfall you might desperately need.
But does it always work out that way? And even if does, is it really good for our communities?
Inspired by a recent article from In These Times, Upzoned hosts Kea and Chuck take on a charged and crucial question this week: What would the prison system look like in a Strong Town? If we set aside how we feel about the criminal justice system and view a prison purely as an infrastructure investment, are big public incarceration centers just silver-bullet development in another form? What about when city-owned prisons go private? And most importantly, how can we build strong places that aren’t dangerously dependent upon the revenue from prisons at all?
Then in the Downzone, Chuck spends a reflective last week before the publication of his own book reading a biography of another author, Harper Lee. And Kea reflects on another type of prison: a wild 1970s social experiment aboard a tiny raft set adrift across the Atlantic Ocean with 11 strangers crammed inside, which is now the subject of a fascinating documentary.