Small Town, Big House

John Eason, MPP’02, arrived at Chicago Harris in 1999 with a mission. As a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, he’d noticed the large number of people – mostly black and Latino – who were being sent to prison on relatively minor charges.


“If they’re sending people to prison because they’re selling drugs,” he says now, “I had to start questioning. This led me to Harris. I wanted to solve the problem. I wanted to get a policy answer.”


Instead, he discovered that answers just led to more questions, which, in turn, led to another master’s degree and then a PhD in sociology, an assistant professorship at Texas A&M, and now his first book, Big House on the Prairie, an ethnography of a prison town in rural Arkansas forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.


The U.S. prison economy has expanded dramatically since the 1980s. The country has built 1,152 prisons in the past 32 years. Taken together, they cover 600 square miles, an area about half the size of Rhode Island. The cost is considerable – Eason puts a conservative estimate at $23 billion – but so are the job opportunities. “These prisons employ 460,000 people as corrections officers,” Eason says. 

“That’s not counting the wardens.”


When he was organizing, Eason, like most other people in his community, believed that the main beneficiaries of the prison boom were white. As one church lay leader put it after the son of a church member was sent to jail during a crackdown on the area’s drug dealers, “I know we’re standing up for our neighborhood, but we are having our black children arrested here in the city for what? White folks down state to get jobs!”


Eason intended to use his Harris education to help dismantle what he calls the prison-industrial complex. But when he started looking at the data on prison town populations, he discovered something sur­prising: Nearly a third of the people in those towns were black or Latino. In other words, more than 150,000 blacks and Latinos across the United States had good-paying jobs thanks to a prison boom that disproportionately affects minorities.


In order to better understand the political economy of prisons, Eason decided to spend a year living in and studying Forrest City, Ark., a town that had successfully campaigned for a federal prison complex in the 1990s.


The first question he had was why any town would want a prison in its backyard. Within a few weeks of interviewing community leaders and business owners, both black and white, Eason discovered, as he writes, “If presented with the question . . . a Forrest City local might turn it around and ask, ‘Have you seen my backyard?’”


Forrest City had grown up as a cotton town, but that economy was destroyed as large corporations took over the industry. “You look at the stats, and it’s Gary,” Eason says, referring to the Northwest Indiana city famously decimated by the decline of the steel industry. The murder rate in Forrest City was comparable to Chicago’s. The racial segregation index was remarkably high, with most of the black residents crammed into a tiny rural ghetto.


Furthermore, in the ’80s, Forrest City had endured two major humiliations in the national media. The first involved a brutal strike at the local Sanyo plant. The second was an act of vigilante justice against an accused rapist: While he awaited trial, two armed men broke into his house and castrated him. The county sheriff, 20/20 reported, displayed the man’s testicles in a jar on his desk.


After talking to local leaders, Eason began to understand why so many of them supported the decision to open a prison. “When your options are limited, something as hideous as a prison sounds great,” he explains. “Compared to a paper mill or a toxic waste facility, a prison looks good. A federal prison has good, high-paying jobs. People have to relocate, so there’s some outside influence. For an average town, a prison does wonders. It increases employment, it increases the median home value, it increases the median income.”


Even though the town was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, support for the prison transcended the racial divide. “Blacks said the same thing as whites,” Eason says. “If white people just wanted to beat on blacks, there would be no black or Latino guards. Black people wouldn’t have supported it. It was a bad situation. They wanted to save the town.”


Race matters, Eason concludes. “It determines a lot here, but how race matters is the key question. I’m not an advocate for prison building, but if we want to stop building them, we have to find other ways of supporting the towns.”


Eason’s work has direct relevance for anyone interested in rural economies, says Illinois State Representative Christian Mitchell, who first met Eason when he was serving as resident head in Mitchell’s college dorm, and who credits Eason with inspiring him to choose a career in public service. “Downstate towns depend on prisons,” Mitchell says. “The laws are tough to ensure a steady stream of prisoners. As we talk about ramping down the prison population, we have to sustain rural economic development.”   


– Aimee Levitt