Despite being 90 percent white, and despite voting 2-to-1 for Donald Trump, one Indiana county has taken a firm position against the prison industrial complex and refused to become the home to a new privately-owned ICE detention center.
...over the last two weeks, an improbable alliance of pro-immigrant activists, county officials, and RV manufacturing executives came together to defeat a local proposal that would have helped carry out Trump’s hardline deportation plans: a privately run $100 million immigration detention facility just outside Goshen, the county seat.
For those in the business of keeping human beings in captivity, President Trump’s harsh stances on immigration are a potential profit center—a fact that should disgust us all. With 45’s policies in mind, the nation’s for-profit prison companies have been ramping up expansion and development of their industry of incarceration since the 2016 election.
After all, as Mother Jones reports, Trump and the for-profit prison industry are besties.
...America’s for-profit prison giants heartily backed Trump during the campaign, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to his inaugural committee after the election, and are now set to benefit from his newly passed tax plan.
“I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons,” Trump said in 2016. “It seems to work a lot better.”
With increased ICE enforcement, officials are now apprehending and detaining many more immigrants across the country, rather than at the borders.
That means ICE is hoping to incarcerate more of its detainees in the heartland, near where they’re arrested. “It’s good business sense to have bed capacity in close proximity to where our operations are,” says Philip Miller, deputy executive associate director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations.
“Good business sense.”
But back to Elkhart County, Indiana. Back in November, local activists heard tell that CoreCivic—the new, smartly ambiguous name for the corporate prison behemoth formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America—was eyeing a choice location in Goshen, near a landfill. ICE wanted a detention center within 180 miles of key cities like Detroit and Chicago, and Elkhart County was in the right place.
It was just the wrong time. The county has seen tremendous economic growth since the Great Recession, with unemployment rates plummeting to just 2.5 percent. Concurrently, the immigration population also skyrocketed.
Rather than a shortage of jobs, the region—which produces 90 percent of the world’s RVs—is battling a shortage of workers, so much so that recruitment efforts have begun to offer new opportunities to those displaced by 2017’s various natural disasters.
Thus, both economic and moral factors ended up quickly uniting this oh-so-red community against Big Prison, with remarkably well-rounded and unified criticism.
As the news of the prison proposal has circulated, community opposition has grown among advocates for immigrants and refugees who believe an immigration prison and the visible presence of federal immigration officers would drive away vulnerable people.
Losing large numbers of immigrants would have a devastating impact on local manufacturing companies and businesses that benefit from a diverse clientele. The cultural and social diversity of Elkhart County also would be adversely affected by an exodus of immigrants.
Other leaders have objected to the proposal, pointing out that Elkhart County already has a severe worker shortage and that adding a large prison would diminish the county's quality of life.
CoreCivic ultimately got the message and withdrew the proposal on January 22, before it even went up for a vote. While the community coalition looks to redefine its next mission, the private prison company continues to search for its next target.
Prison towns are, with few exceptions, curious places. When rural communities lose whatever industry once sustained them, the business of incarceration seems like a last chance at survival. Whether government-run or privatized, proposals for prison development not only promise to provide hundred to thousands of new jobs, but also economic stimulation via construction itself, and the use of local vendors for certain services. The new employees will buy houses, in theory, and new residents might also appear in those who want to be closer to an incarcerated loved one.
However, there’s no guarantee that the construction will be done by locals, or even that the facility staff will live within city limits. Consider the city of Adelanto, California, which is currently home to three prisons. After its local military base shut down in the early 1990s, the population and economy were decimated.
Enter the promise of prisons.
"Back then (after opening the city’s first prison in 1991), the city felt correctional facilities would bring jobs in Adelanto," said (city manager Dr. James) Hart. "We hoped people could use their job to buy houses in the city, stimulating a housing boom with more development following."
Adelanto soon approved two more private prison projects.
Despite the promises, the prisons have failed to stimulate lasting growth in Adelanto. None were compelled to hire exclusively from within city boundaries, and all ultimately ended up contributing little to the city's coffers.
Which brings us back to today, to a city that has three prisons but no McDonald's.
It’s easy to say that “Hey, if those Hoosiers can do it, everyone can!” But it’s also important to recognize that Goshen and Elkhart County enjoy an economic stability that allows them much more choice in such matters than the average community targeted by the for-profit prison industry. Most of them look more like Adelanto.
"When the corporations pick up that a town is economically struggling, they come in promising economic security, jobs, and other benefits," said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an NGO working to end for-profit incarceration.
"Affluent cities have the power to say no. That option doesn't really exist in smaller, depressed cities."
Meanwhile, CoreCivic made almost half a billion dollars in profit from detained immigrants last year, in just one of the many ways it pays to be in bed with Trump.