prison hoe gangPhotographer Danny Lyon took this picture of a Texas prison hoe gang in 1967.

Governments (state and federal) continue to build prisons in rural areas. From 1991 to 2001, according to rural demographer Calvin Beale, 245 new prisons popped up in 212 rural counties.

Prisons are sold as sources of jobs for local residents and salves for hurting local economies. There’s a lot of debate about the truth of these promises, but in Texas now there’s another problem with putting prisons in some rural places. The state doesn’t pay enough to attract guards and, as a result, many of Texas’ rural prisons are running at half-speed.

Mike Ward of the Austin American-Statesman reported Thursday that prisons throughout rural Texas were “mothballing” beds because the facilities lacked guards.

In one prison in Dalhart, in the state’s Panhandle, the lockup has only 62 percent of its jobs filled. Another in West Texas is running with 65 percent of its alloted staff. Statewide, the Texas system has only 83 percent of the guards it needs, according to Ward. The shortage appears most severe, however, in rural parts of the state that are losing population.

“When we reach the point where we’re shutting down beds, it’s no longer a problem,” said State Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who heads the legislative committee that oversees Texas’ prisons. “It would be accurate to label this a crisis. Because of this chronic shortage, we’ve had to lower our hiring standards. … We’re now taking 18-year-olds just a few months out of high school; we’re hiring 70-plus-year-old guards and others who are physically not able to protect themselves or others.”

In some cases, according to Ward, one prison guard is supervising 100 inmates during mealtimes.

Rural counties have competed with one another to win a prison in the belief that the steady employment offered at the facilities would stem population losses. In Texas, however, the pay for corrections officers is so low that people aren’t clamoring for the jobs. The starting pay for a Texas prison guard is $24,000 a year and tops out at $34,000 after eight years, according to the Statesman’s Ward.

Texas ranks 13th among the 16 Southern states in pay.prisons

The Statesman’s story revives an old debate in rural development circles: Whether prisons help or harm local rural economies.

Beale, a demographer with the federal Economic Research Service, found, for example, that in those 212 rural counties that had new prisons, population rose 12 percent in the 1990s, a far greater increase than the 1.5 percent growth of the 1980s.

Ryan Scott King, Marc Mauer and Tracy Huling, however, studied 25 years of data and concluded “counties that rely on prisons to rebuild their economy will receive little return on their investment, while closing off any discourse concerning other means of sustainable economic growth.” The three could find no real difference between prison and non-prison counties in terms of unemployment or per capita income.

Penn State economic geographer Amy Glasmeier more recently found that there were some positive economic effects on local communities from prisons, but that they were “rather limited.”

The news out of Texas is that unless the pay is competitive, not only will rural prisons not stem any outmigration, the prisons themselves may be unable to function.

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