Send us your poor, huddled detainees

Eric J. Williams is a professor of criminal justice at Sonoma State University. His book "The Big House in a Small Town: Prisons, Communities, and Economics in Rural America" will be published next year.

When Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republicans proposed the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act, I just rolled my eyes. The brief firestorm set off by the GOP over whether to move Guantanamo Bay detainees to U.S. prisons seemed to be just inside-the-Beltway silliness. Outside Washington, town after town, from Colorado to Montana to Tennessee, proposed bringing the enemy combatants to their communities.

I was not in the least surprised. I have been studying the issue of prisons in rural towns across the U.S. since 2003 and have found that small towns have no problem with housing inmates, no matter how dangerous society considers the inmates to be.

The public’s surprise that small towns are vying for Guantanamo inmates just demonstrates how little urban and suburban Americans understand about rural America. For the rural communities, prisons and prisoners are about the promise of more jobs and more money.

For more than 25 years, rural towns have been lobbying, cajoling and nearly bribing governmental institutions to give them prisons. I lived in and studied two such towns for more than a year. One was Florence, Colo., where some of the current controversy is focused. It is the home to ADX Florence, the so-called Alcatraz of the Rockies, where the federal government houses its most disruptive inmates under supermax conditions. It is home to “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid and 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, among others. And the town of Florence actually raised money to pay the federal government for the privilege of housing these inmates.


Stories like this have become commonplace in rural America. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation used to refer to the process of selecting a community to house a new prison as DAD (decide, announce and defend). Today’s process would better be described as LLC: lobby, lobby and celebrate.

In the past, the government bore the burden of convincing towns of the benefits of having a prison. Today, communities must show the government why they are the best location for a prison.

Communities have offered property, money and upgraded utilities to land a facility. Residents of a town in Missouri wrote a song that they sang to the state Assembly committee in charge of the decision. After the end of the oil boom left the economy of Hinton, Okla., in shambles, the town borrowed millions from American Express to build a prison and then hired a private prison firm to run it. Places as disparate as Youngstown, Ohio, a former steel town, and Warren, Maine, a former fishing and timber stronghold, have turned to prisons as the solution to their economic woes.

Studies have shown mixed economic results, but this hasn’t stopped the communities from going forward. As the mayor of one of the towns told me: “We don’t have enough water for a brewery, and IBM ain’t exactly knocking at the door. What else were we gonna do?”

What else indeed. Those of us in urban and suburban areas may look down our noses at such blatant opportunism and rail against the “prison/industrial complex,” but for a town with little else to save it from economic ruin, it makes sense. So while the politicians rail against imprisoning the inmates from Gitmo in the U.S., don’t be surprised when small towns step up to welcome them.