Many believe prisons are the ultimate form of racial and economic exploitation. Yet in the rural communities where most of the nation’s prisons are located, even people of color can end up on the other side of the national debate about incarceration. I learned this after meeting folks like Coach Cecil Twilley, a pioneer in Forrest City, Arkansas, and the Mississippi Delta. Coach, as he is affectionately known in this Southern rural town of about 14,000, integrated the local school board and administration; he was the first black member of the local country club, the first black head coach after desegregation of the public schools, and the last local high school football coach to win the Arkansas state championship nearly fifty years ago. This feat is the reason for his enduring nickname.
Forrest City is also home to an estimated 2,100 incarcerated people, with more than 1,800 detained at the Federal Correctional Institution, Forrest City (FCI Forrest City), which was constructed in 1997. Coach supports the presence of the prison in town. When asked to explain why he welcomed such a stigmatized institution, he answered: “I don’t want my town to end up like Gary.”
Like Gary, Indiana, and countless other American communities struck by the twin forces of disinvestment and segregation, Forrest City was afflicted by structural racism and underdevelopment. Recalling life before the building of the prison facility, one Forrest City resident noted that several plants and other major employers had closed or moved away. Conditions in the city, he said, were “Tough! Tough! Tough!” Coach’s comparison of Forrest City to Gary indicates the town’s downward trajectory and the rise of the rural ghetto—areas marked by a form of concentrated black poverty that recalls the more familiar racial ghettos of urban America.
Coach’s quip also offers a counterintuitive insight about why rural communities that once responded to prison construction proposals with resistance sometimes now embrace prisons as rare opportunities for public investment. He was not the only one who expected the expansion of the carceral state to help the town’s economic fortunes. Larry Bryant, the future mayor (then city councilor) of Forrest City and former president of the local NAACP chapter, also supported the prison development when it was first proposed.
When asked why he supported the prison, another black community leader, Andre Stephens, Executive Director of Saint Francis County Community Development Corporation, exclaimed, “A prison beats the hell out of a paper mill.” Similar “site fights,” or debates over community opposition and support of facilities with harmful environmental effects, have been documented by scholars such as Robert Bullard, a leading campaigner against environmental racism. Desperate towns seeking industries to help stabilize their economy are not blessed with a wealth of options, and the options they do have are often dirty industries like paper mills, garbage dumps, and incinerators. Like these polluting industries, prisons are also undesirable forms of economic development, yet they carry an additional stigma because of the uneven racial patterns of mass incarceration. But for places like Forrest City, a prison may be the most environmentally benign option.
In a town known for political divisions along racial lines, black leaders unified with the local white elite in supporting the FCI Forrest City. In a competitive global economy, a prison becomes the best of the worst options available for struggling communities like Forrest City. If campaigners against mass incarceration want to change this equation, they will need to team up with those advocating for serious, stable, and environmentally sustainable alternatives forms of investment.
The Rise of the Rural Ghetto
While rural areas across the United States face serious economic challenges, the hardships that black rural communities face are particularly acute. Indeed, rural ghettos in many ways resemble their urban counterparts; the root causes of these ghettos and their social outcomes bear many similarities. Prison development becomes an attractive proposition in the face of high levels of poverty and few sources of private or public investment, even if the prison system has a disproportionately harmful impact on black towns and neighborhoods.
Aretha Brown has lived in both urban and rural communities marked by concentrated disadvantage. Her practical experience of the social isolation in these communities suggests they hardly differ. After a decade of living the street life in Chicago’s Low End—an impoverished, predominantly black neighborhood bookended by the notorious Robert Taylor and Ida B. Wells public housing developments, until they were demolished in the early 2000s—she returned home to Forrest City only to find things worse than in Chicago. “What folks were doing in Chicago,” she says, “is nothing compared to what they’re doing for money and drugs in Forrest City today!”
Her home is surrounded by industrial decay that recalls the landscape of the Midwestern Rust Belt, with an abandoned cotton-processing plant, metallic barns, and rusty silos framing the background while her grandchildren play in the front yard. Although Brown tries to keep her children out of the streets, they are deeply involved with the local scene, keeping her acutely aware of who has been “shot down or locked down” in Forrest City. Burglaries and other drug-related crimes plague the neighborhood. Standing in her yard beneath the hot sun on a spring day, sweat and glycerin from her Jheri curl beading on her forehead, she concedes, “It’s like the city, only quieter”—while a drug user staggers by, as if to prove her point.
Contemporary urban and rural ghettos are products of a number of large-scale societal shifts over the last half-century, including deindustrialization, white flight, and the reverse migration of African Americans to the South. Their most singular characteristic is often a high proportion of African Americans living in social isolation due to formal and informal patterns of residential segregation, which further concentrate the poverty of their residents. Between 1980 and 2000, Forrest City’s supply of publicly subsidized Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing increased by more than 440 units—outpacing the rate of growth of non-subsidized units in the local rental market by some margin. Many of those new units were constructed near the South End, a neighborhood already hyper-segregated with poor black residents due to the presence of five public housing developments within a one-third square mile area. All told, 30 percent of Forrest City’s rentals are publicly subsidized or managed in some manner—fifteen times the national average.
Racial disparities of this sort are embedded in the town’s physical layout in other ways, too, and offer a constant reminder of the mark left by centuries of slavery and Jim Crow on rural communities across the South. Forrest City’s white elite—some of whom hail from families that once ran cotton plantations, and who still wield statewide political power—tend to live east of Arkansas Highway 1, which runs through the center of town. Nestled in the hills, their homes are accessible only by secluded, winding roads, and feature immaculate lawns and well-sculpted gardens. Most of Forrest City’s poor black residents live on the lower ground west of Highway 1, in neighborhoods like the South End. Despite their relative physical proximity, the residents of these two parts of town remain socially distant.
Crime is also unevenly distributed across Forrest City. The South End was home to most of the 1,000 formerly incarcerated people returning to Forrest City between 1990 and 2006. This rate of return is comparable to the rate in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, like North Lawndale and Englewood, and occasions comparable challenges associated with reentry and recidivism. Forrest City has suffered an annual murder rate of nearly 30 per 100,000 residents since 1985, a figure similar to Chicago’s.
Escaping the Prison Trap
More than half of all Americans are related to or know someone in prison. While this cataclysmic social problem receives attention as a major barrier to racial and economic justice in urban centers, less considered is the toll that mass incarceration and prison expansion have taken on rural communities—which both “send” prisoners and “receive” prisons at rates that significantly exceed their portion of the national population. The prison-building boom—which resulted in a tripling of the number of U.S. prisons since the 1970s—has been a largely rural phenomenon, with more than 70 percent of new facilities built in rural towns during that time. Yet despite the fact that prisons employ more than 450,000 corrections officers (around ten times the number of coal jobs in the country today), occupy a land mass of roughly 600 square miles, and have cost a total of at least $30 billion to build, this massive public works project has transformed the U.S. countryside virtually unnoticed.
As the recent history of places like Forrest City makes clear, the new geography of rural prisons also reflects a significant shift in the racial structures of the contemporary South. No longer a product of the overtly oppressive racism of Jim Crow, today’s rural ghetto is the creation of the nominally color-blind, de facto racism that defines the new Southern political economy. But if there have been recent indications that we are coming to understand how mass incarceration affects urban inequality—and are trying to change policies to reduce mass incarceration in those communities—the same cannot be said about the connections between race, crime, and rural inequality. Although we could extend strategies developed in urban areas to reduce mass incarceration in rural communities, these communities might not be as receptive.
For example, across Arkansas, the rural ghetto is driving racial disparities in incarceration—so much so, in fact, that rural communities in Arkansas incarcerate higher proportions of black people than urban communities in the state. At the same time, the economic desperation of these same communities makes them prime targets for locating new prison construction projects. For communities like Forrest City that have been almost totally abandoned by both private capital and other forms of public investment, a prison offers the prospect of jobs, economic stability, and long-term investment opportunities that would otherwise be nearly impossible to secure.
The economic development that prisons promise therefore drives a wedge between urban and rural communities of color, which might otherwise mobilize collectively against the expansion and entrenchment of the nation’s racist system of mass incarceration. To overcome this problem, movements against prison building must form alliances with movements that seek to put public investment in rural communities back at the center of left politics.
The Green New Deal is one such avenue for connecting carbon-neutral economic development to issues of social and racial justice. To date, proposals associated with the Green New Deal have tilted toward urban investment in programs like energy-efficient affordable housing. Instead of offering community leaders a choice between prisons and paper mills, we should be asking Forrest City residents what alternative forms of economic activity they would like to see take root in the local industrial park. As one local business leader acknowledged, “If we could site a high-tech non-polluting facility that pays $75,000 to $125,000 in annual salary we would. But those facilities were not exactly lining up to come to places like Forrest City.” The Green New Deal could be an opportunity for figuring out ways to change that calculus for America’s proliferating rural ghettos. The language of the Green New Deal resolution sponsored by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey promises to “promote justice and equity” for “communities of color” and “depopulated rural communities,” but much work remains to be done to spell out what that would look like.
A new coalition linking the politics of prison reform with the politics of public investment in a carbon-free economic infrastructure could point the way toward a radical change in the political economy of rural places by confronting structural disinvestment, racialized inequality, and mass incarceration. Not only might it reduce overreliance on prison building as a means of economic development, but it could begin to address some of the deep-seated, historical sources of inequality in these communities. While there is a need for more detailed proposals, rural communities could certainly benefit the Green New Deal’s call to create millions of jobs over the next twenty years by moving to renewable energy and by improving infrastructure in transportation, electricity, and even industries like farming. The Green New Deal includes a call to retrofit buildings to meet energy-efficient standards and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in farming. Increasing collective land ownership and management in rural areas could contribute to these goals, suggesting that there is potential for a broad-based coalition that fully appreciates what rural communities offer, and provides those communities with a form of public investment that isn’t linked to mass incarceration.
Furthermore, it might provide the bedrock for a new alliance between urban and rural movements for racial and economic justice that could change the dynamics of U.S. politics writ large. This is not only wise for electoral coalitions but can save us from what some warn will be “the fire next time” of climate change.
John Major Eason is an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation (2017).