US Department of Agriculture shouldn’t fund rural prisons
In 1862, President Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which he described to Congress as “the department of the people, in which they feel more directly concerned than any other.”
Almost 160 years later, our country has experienced dramatic growth and earthquake changes, but the USDA endures as an institution. Today, the agency aims not only to support the farmers and ranchers who feed our country, but also to strengthen the economy and improve the quality of life throughout rural America.
However, a strange development runs counter to these lofty goals and runs counter to the agency’s history as a “people’s department”. Over the past 25 years, the USDA has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars earmarked for “critical community infrastructure” to fund larger prisons in smaller communities across the country. This is an example of a legal system that developed to the point of blowing up the buttons on its original wardrobe.
USDA Direct Loans and Grants Program for Community Facilities was established with the aim of providing grants and low-interest loans for infrastructure such as emergency services, hospitals, fire stations and community centers in rural areas. In 1996, decades after the program’s inception, the agency funded its first prison and never looked back, funneling $ 410 million in farm funds to at least 54 counties in 22 states over the following decades. In total, USDA funding for prisons has increased by more than 200 percent since 2010. This problem has increased under the Democratic and Republican administrations.
As Congress turns to spending bills for 2022, officials are expected to renew the original commitment to “the People’s Department.” Rural American communities need support to improve infrastructure, education, health care, recreational opportunities, and more. Larger prisons and increased incarceration should not be part of the vocabulary of rural development, and Congress must ensure that community facilities programs reflect this.
There is an inextricable link between increasing incarceration and economic decline in small communities. While mass incarceration was once a problem in big cities, today small towns and rural communities across the country suffer from the highest incarceration rates. Incarceration in prison in the largest cities of the country decreased by 23 percent between 1990 and 2019, while incarceration in rural prisons increased by 222%, followed by 63% increase in small towns. At the end of 2020, three in five incarcerated people were incarcerated in smaller towns or rural counties – even after large reductions in prison populations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is not the result of the fact that large state and federal prisons are located in small communities, but that poor and mostly unconvicted people are locked in local jails. Many cannot afford to pay bail, and prisons have increasingly become a frontline response to mental health and substance use issues in resource-poor communities.
Incarceration in small American towns affects the poor and working people of all races, and it does not make us any safer. Instead, spending time in jail makes people more likely to lose their jobs and housing, strain family relationships, and make people even more dependent on the public safety net when they are released. High incarceration rates weaken communities overall, and economic decline and increasing incarceration are linked to higher rates of drug overdose deaths.
Some USDA-backed prison projects have called for the construction of additional beds specifically to generate revenue, allowing local prisons to incarcerate people on behalf of other counties, the state prison system, or federal authorities. In an age of bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform, federal agencies should not implicitly or explicitly encourage counties to link their economic futures to incarceration. The USDA just shouldn’t be in the business of building prisons.
Jasmine Heiss is the campaign director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s In our backyards project, an initiative exploring the changing geography of mass incarceration. Follow her on Twitter @JasminitaMH.