Prison closures threaten rural NM economies
"When prisons close in rural areas, there's a domino effect throughout the community," an advocate said
By Isabella Alves
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For most rural communities, economic drivers are often agricultural or based on natural resources.
But in some rural New Mexico communities, the economic driver can be something very different.
Correctional facilities in rural towns often serve as the biggest employers and economic players. Recently, the New Mexico Department of Corrections announced it is considering preliminary plans to close the Springer Correctional Center, a women's prison located in Colfax County in the rural northeast corner of the state.
Eric Harrison, public information officer for the department, said the department doesn't choose where prisons are located. He said any decisions about prison locations were made by previous administrations, and no one in the department could speak to how prison locations are chosen.
In 2017, the state closed the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia. This closure prompted considerable public outcry from area residents who depended on the facility for its economy.
After the facility left, the town saw all manner of effects on the local community, said Grace Philips, general counsel for the New Mexico Association of Counties. She said the town's bank and grocery store ended up closing. When prisons close in rural areas, there's a domino effect throughout the community, she said.
The Torrance County Commission voted two years ago to reopen the former prison as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility. Since then, the community has been recovering slowly.
But not everyone agrees with using prisons as a way to boost an economy.
"Prisons and jails are a heinous way to generate economic development," Steven Robert Allen, director of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project, said via email. The Project is a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of incarcerated people.
He said that, at a bare minimum, the prison-industrial complex in the country needs to be dramatically downsized.
"As we do this, state and federal governments may need to step in and help some communities as they transition to economies that are not dependent on mass incarceration and all the atrocious injustices that go along with it," he said.
Philips agrees that, as jail and prison populations are reduced, it's important for the state to consider the broader impacts of those decisions. She said there is potential to transfer from an incarceration-based employment model to other alternatives, but it doesn't happen overnight.
As fewer people are incarcerated, she said the state needs to look at substitute industries for areas where prisons might be closed so that communities aren't unnecessarily devastated.
Springer is one of these communities.
Springer Mayor Boe Lopez said he thinks the town is a good location for a correctional facility because it's limited in how it can diversify. He said Springer isn't a part of the state with oil and gas, a dairy industry or other economic drivers.
Springer is very rural in nature, he said, and the things it can come up with to help drive the economy are limited. That said, Springer isn't dependent just on the facility. Lopez said the electric company and schools are strong in their community, but due to the rural economy, everything is intertwined.
He gave the example of a teacher coming to Springer for employment and her husband gets a job at the correctional facility, or vice versa.
"And so it's just turned into that; it's not like we were just solely dependent or relying on the correctional facility," Lopez said. "(But) one leans on the other, so, as far as it goes, it has become a large employer within the community."
When the facility transitioned from a boys school to a prison, Lopez said the town did lose people to other parts of the state because fewer people were employed at the facility. Nonetheless, in a town of 800 to 900 people, 100-150 jobs is a big deal.
Agriculture is another big industry in Colfax County, he said, but a ranch is only going to hire a few people at a time.
Colfax County Commissioner Bobby Ledoux said Springer has been dependent on a correctional facility for a long time. He said losing it would turn the community into a ghost town.
Ledoux said that a lot of dependency issues have arisen tied to correctional employment. Prisons don't require the amount of backup or support that other businesses do, he said.
A prison isn't dependent on interstate commerce, transportation issues, educational supplement backup and other things, he said. Also, Springer knows how to support this type of industry because the town has been doing it for nearly a century.
"We lost our mining, we lost our oil fields, we lost our racetrack and now they're taking away the prison infrastructure," Ledoux said. "And it's, like, what do we have? I mean, farmers and agriculture can absorb only so much of the economy."
Otero County could be facing the same fate.
Otero County currently owes about $58 million in bonds for two correctional facilities, the Otero County Prison Facility and the Otero County Processing Facility. Both are privately operated and recently proposed legislation would have prevented the county from continuing to operate the facilities, ultimately leaving them with a big debt to pay.
The legislation failed, but the debate around the two facilities closing is ongoing.
State Rep. Willie Madrid, D-Chaparral, said he doesn't believe the county can do without these facilities right now because of the outstanding bonds. He said it would be detrimental to shut them down.
Madrid said talk surrounding private prisons has come up before and the most recent conversation in the legislative session didn't consider the financial impact on local economies.
"To shut down these private prisons, while I ... think we have to get to that point, I just don't think we can do it right now," he said.
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