Lightning flashed across Kentucky skies a few nights ago. "I love storms," said my roommate, Gypsi, her eyes bright with excitement. Thunder boomed over the Kentucky hills and Atwood Hall, here in Lexington, KY's federal prison. I fell asleep thinking of the gentle, haunting song our gospel choir sings: "It's over now, It's over now. I think that I can make it. The storm is over now."
I awoke the next morning feeling confused and bewildered. Why had the guards counted us so many times? "That was lightning," Gypsi said, giggling. The guards shine flashlight in our rooms three times a night, to count us, and I generally wake up each time; that night the storm was also a culprit.
As the day continued we saw large pools of water had collected at each entrance to Atwood Hall. Prisoners from drought-ridden areas wish they could collect the rainwater and send it home. Fanciful notions, but of the kind, at least, that can help us remember priorities. I suppose it's wise, though, to focus on what can be fixed. The elevator here, for instance.
The Department of Justice Budget for Fiscal Year 2015 provides 27.4 billion in discretionary funding. In state prisons alone, it's estimated that taxpayers spend an average of $31,286.00 per inmate per year. (The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers, p. 9). But, for most of the 2.5 months that I've lived here in Atwood Hall, the elevator from the basement to the 3rd floor, which should serve close to 300 women, has been out of order. According to "inmate dot com," our in-house rumor mill, a decision was made, last month, not to fix it. In the past several weeks, two women arrived in wheelchairs and another new prisoner is blind.
I like moving from the basement to the third floor on the staircase. It's easy exercise. But traveling up and down the stairs can be life-threatening for many prisoners here.
Ms. P. seems to be in her seventies. Wiry white hair, fixed in a braid that reaches down her neck, surrounds her golden brown face. I like to imagine a framed oil painting of her gracing the first floor entrance.
A few nights ago, I watched her toil to haul herself, hanging on to the handrail, from the basement to the first floor. She needed to rest on the landing, winded, her heart pounding, barely able to speak. But Ms. P. made the best of it. "Ms. P.," said another prisoner comfortingly, "maybe they'll get this elevator fixed this week." "I'd contribute my entire month's salary if it would help repair the elevator!" Ms. P. said with a chuckle. She very likely earns $6.72 cents per month, at 12 cents an hour. Three of us readily agreed to match her donation, which would amount to about $28.00.
We need Ms. P.'s lightheartedness. But I've seen flashes of fury, followed by sad resignation, like lightning giving way to rain, in the faces of guards and prison administrators witnessing these scenes occurring on their watch, but as powerless to stop them as to call off those storms the other night.
A ray of brilliant sun fell for me last weekend with a visit from an old friend, parent to a lovely child I was especially delighted to see. Once again, I am luckier than so many whose loved ones lack the means for regular and intensive travel. Through our conversation in the prison visiting room, I learned the story of Thompson FCI, a freshly-constructed but never-occupied federal prison near Clinton, Iowa. My friend's folks, who live near the town, have speculated for years, as have all the town's residents, about when or whether the empty prison would ever open. Right now, my friend said, there's only one full time employee in the prison, the warden, and his job is to mow the lawn.
Apparently, local people have been pining for the Bureau of Prisons to act. "The BOP's positive impact on rural communities is significant," says a 2015 paper issued by the Department of Justice. "By bringing in new federal jobs, stimulation of local businesses and housing, contracting with hospitals and other local vendors, and coordinating with local law enforcement, the BOP improves the economy of the town and the entire region where these rural facilities are located."
Yet government's promises to aid small towns with "prison money" often ring false. In an article entitled "The American Prison, Open for Business?" (Peace Review, vol. 20, issue 3), Stephen Gallagher notes that although prisons may bring with them high-paying jobs, "most employees of the prison industry do not live in the host communities." "In a joint WSU/MSU study, it was found that 68 percent of the corrective jobs were held by people who did not even live in the county that housed the prison where they worked. In another study in California, it was found that less than 20 percent of the jobs went to residents of the host community." And most people living in poor rural communities aren't eligible for the better-paying jobs in the prison system.
Communities desperate to host a new prison should also consider the wages that will be paid to the prisoners. What company would choose to hire local non-inmate workers when the BOP can forcibly hire inmates to work for 12 cents an hour, right in their homes, with no need to consider employee benefits, pay raises, vacation pay or insurance. Prison labor creates a labor pool that is always available and can be maintained in a manner similar to the cost of maintaining slaves. If neighboring people lose their jobs, if they have to steal to try to get by, they can always wind up living in the prison.
I'm hard-pressed to see how this can possibly benefit an area's economy, that is if its "economy" is understood to include all the area's people, and not just the wealthiest who can influence prison placement.
When prisons are constructed in rural, southern areas, the political elites can count the entire prison population as part of their census, bringing federal funds into their jurisdictions, but without much pressure to share funds with their new 'constituents,' since the prisoners by and large can't vote. Blighted urban areas lose funds desperately needed for education, housing, health care and infrastructure, while rural people compete to be hired as jailers.