The recent newspaper headline that indicated our state government is moving rapidly to bring economic development to the rural cow town of Clayton in the northeast corner of New Mexico was exciting.
But the details in smaller print later in the article left me less than enthused, so I decided before I settled on an opinion to check my perceptions with my friend Romero.
Of course, Romero's no economist, but he did work as a guard at the state pen at one low point in his spotty career. And since the Big Idea being promoted as the yellow brick road to prosperity for Union County is to build a private prison out there on the endless plains, I figured his experience might lend some depth to how I could look at the issue.
He greeted my query with characteristic candor.
"Are you out of your blinkin' mind?"
I rushed to assure him that this was not especially my idea for economic growth but that some pretty important state elective and appointive officials (like a bunch on the third and fourth floors of the Roundhouse up in Santa Fe) seemed to think it made sense, so maybe ...
"You know what they pay prison guards?" he interrupted.
No, I didn't know for sure, but I'd assumed that if unemployment is high in a community, any dependable source of reasonable job opportunities would probably be welcomed.
"Reasonable job? You know what happens to the insides of prison guards? You know the kind of stress they take home and dump on their families after pulling a shift? You have any idea what kind of turnover corrections work involves?"
I admitted I hadn't considered those angles. But I pointed out that at the town hall meeting called to discuss the possibility of building a privately run prison in Clayton the overwhelming majority of those present had given it a ringing endorsement.
"Of course the civic leaders will endorse it. Heck, a few hundred miles farther south, down in Eunice, the town fathers are practically salivating over the prospect of a nuclear fuel rod recycling plant, for crying out loud! The bankers and merchant types always love these schemes. But you can bet the farm that none of them or any of their families will be working there—at either the prison or at the nuclear recycling plant! Those ’careers' always sound great for the other guys in town."
I reminded him that several other small towns in New Mexico were benefiting from the presence of privately-run prisons, towns like Estancia, Santa Rosa, Grants and Hobbs. So why should Clayton be any different? Or any worse?
"Notice what those places have in common?" he asked with a smirk.
I had to admit none of them were exactly burning up the charts with their economic success stories ... except for Hobbs. "Well, Hobbs is experiencing a big boom right now," I offered.
But Romero was more than ready. "Yeah, it is; but that's because of the racetrack and casino. The prison's been open there for 10 years or more and the economy in Lea County still sucked—until the new racehorse track opened and the slots starting pulling in Texans by the busload."
I acknowledged that the other sites of privately run prisons are limping along economically, their growth rates barely distinguishable from neighboring towns that don't have for-profit jails. In desperation, I resorted to the "better-than-nothing" argument that revealed just how lame my position had become.
"Well, even if it won't exactly ignite a boom, we still need more prison beds in the state and it won't hurt to spread them around to a part of the state that's hurting for jobs, will it?"
He peered at me over the top of his glasses. I hate it when he peers at me over the top of his glasses. It's a gesture that means I've just said something so patently wrong he's giving me a chance to reconsider. "At least they say we need more prison beds. To hold all the criminals. Who've committed all the crimes."
Even as the final point in my argument trailed off weakly, I knew the response. Serious crime rates are falling here as in almost every jurisdiction in the country. If our jails are bulging, it's with the non-dangerous, inappropriately locked-up victims of the phony "War on Drugs."
Building another prison will just expand the pool of young men who should not have been locked up in the first place. And sending them out into the boondocks of Union County will insure that their wives, children and other family supports can have only sporadic contact with them during their incarceration, something that criminologists predict will practically guarantee further legal troubles.
"The trick," Romero reminded me, "is to figure out how to empty the prisons we've already got, not build new ones in a half-hearted attempt at jump-starting the economy."
"I've never been to Clayton," he admitted. "But it seems like a place that would get a lot more benefit from the state government investing in a couple of wind power generating stations or ethanol plants than from yet another lockup."
As I drove home from my heart-to-heart with Romero, another possibility struck me. If he'd had a cell phone, I would've called him on the spot with this new brainchild: Why don't we open a racetrack and casino in Clayton?
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.