Why this, why now?
As deindustrializaton, poverty and drugs have devastated America’s rural towns, they sometimes turn to one of the only industries with a consistent growth curve: prisons. Since the early 1990s America’s prison population has risen precipitously, so now 1 in 30 Americans is enmeshed with the criminal justice system. 2.3 million are in prison or jail, and that number will continue to grow in the coming decade. We imprison more people per capita than any other nation in the world.
But in northern New England, there were no federal prisons, at least until a few years ago. I first visited Berlin, New Hampshire, on September 15, 2007, the day that the mill stacks that had stood at its heart for decades were felled by dynamite. At the same time, ground was being cleared for a new federal prison on the north edge of town. I was sniffing around for a topic for a Masters Thesis, and over the ensuing weeks became captivated by this rugged, gorgeous place, its rich history, and the resiliency of its people. Through research, interviews and reading, I realized that though Berlin is as unique a place one could hope to visit, it is also part of a larger trend of small, economically ravaged rural towns hitching their stars to the corrections industry, a trend that began in the mid-1980s with mandatory sentencing.
Weeks grew to months that grew to years. I amassed hundreds of pages of material, and along the way had the good fortune to meet people willing to speak to me on both sides of the divide—those who oppose prisons, those who support them, those who work there, those who take the pragmatic view that prisons can be part of a diversified economy. There is no evil cabal at work and no clear answers, just a gloomy truth that bears examination, not leastly because of racial inequities in the justice system.
While my thesis—eventually a book, I hope—focuses on one particular place and its story, this blog is a loose chronicle of the tiny places that court prisons, the reasons they do so, and what is lost (or gained) in the process. It combines original reportage, commentary and links to material from other writers and artists. I hope that by following along, people can draw their own conclusions to a few simple questions: Are we spending too much on crime and punishment? Is there another way forward for depressed rural places? Should there be?
When I’m not thinking about prisons and places, I work as a journalist in northern New England, contributing to the daily Eagle-Times newspaper (Claremont, NH) as well as a few other publications. I also teach graphic design to college students. I welcome comments and can be reached at prisonsplaces [at] gmail.com.