Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation


(as of 07/01/2018 at 20:42 UTC)


Now more than ever, we need to understand the social, political, and economic shifts that have driven the United States to triple its prison construction in just over three decades. John Eason goes a very considerable distance here in fulfilling this need, not by detailing the aftereffects of building huge numbers of prisons, but by vividly showing the process by which a community seeks to get a prison built in their area. What prompted him to embark on this inquiry was the insistent question of why the rapid expansion of prisons in America, why now, and why so many. He quickly learned that the prison boom is best understood from the perspective of the rural, southern towns where they tend to be placed (North Carolina has twice as many prisons as New Jersey, though both states have the same number of prisoners). And so he sets up shop, as it were, in Forrest City, Arkansas, where he moved with his family to begin the splendid fieldwork that led to this book. A major part of his story deals with the emergence of the rural ghetto, abetted by white flight, de-industrialization, the emergence of public housing, and higher proportions of blacks and Latinos. How did Forrest City become a site for its prison? Eason takes us behind the decision-making scenes, tracking the impact of stigma (a prison in my backyard-not a likely desideratum), economic development, poverty, and race, while showing power-sharing among opposed groups of elite whites vs. black race leaders. Eason situates the prison within the dynamic shifts rural economies are undergoing, and shows how racially diverse communities can achieve the siting and building of prisons in their “rural ghetto.” The result is a full understanding of the ways in which a prison economy takes shape and operates.


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