Mass incarceration seems finally to be running out of steam. The cost in blood and treasure is just too high. “Tough” on crime is giving way to “right” and “smart.” Former drug warriors are promoting sentencing reform, and “treatment not jail” ballot initiatives pass regularly in the states. That’s a good start. But a crucial element is missing.

Most of the attention is on what I call the push side. Too many people are being pushed into prison, for too many years.

What’s missing is the pull side. Too many rural communities rely on prisons for jobs. They want to pull people in, hopefully more of them.

The heart of the justice reform agenda is on the push side: sentencing and parole reform, treatment not jail, supportive reentry, geriatric release, etc. Global considerations go beyond the justice system to issues of poverty, education, and mental health. In communities with few options and fewer ladders for escape, it is not surprising that people use, deal, or self-medicate on controlled substances.

But all these reforms affect the push side of the system. They’re about why people go to prison, who, and for how long.

The other element is the pull side of the system. Prisons in rural America are treated like a jobs program. “Prisons are viewed as “the anchor for development in rural areas” explained New York’s Corrections Commissioner Thomas Coughlin in 1990. Farms and factories have closed; prisons are the new economic centerpiece. From the corrections staff to the local shopkeepers, most people in a prison town have an interest in keeping that prison open. The mayor and the state representative can be expected to take their side.

Consider Tamms. In 2012 the governor of Illinois wanted to close the super-maximum security facility at Tamms. It was only half filled, and had a sordid history of violence and abuse. But the town fought to keep its baby. Petitions were signed, hearings held and lawsuits filed. Just 18 years earlier, town residents literally held bake sales to raise matching funds to build the prison in the first place. The prison brought in 30% of the town budget and some of its best jobs. “We cannot replace those jobs with jobs that are already in the community,” said the local union president. “Jobs aren’t there to fall back on. And the incomes not there to fall back on.”

Tamms closed but the union’s concerns were never answered. Similar opposition faces prison closings all around the country. What are we going to do about that?

How can we reduce the demand for prisons as well as the supply of prisoners? This question is barely recognized in the reform agenda.

A few brave souls are eyeing solutions. Milk Not Jails in upstate New York started a dairy cooperative that aims to restore the region to its historic bounty, and an economy that “depends on bringing city residents local, healthy food, not locking them up.” Illinois is using a prison that closed at the same time as Tamms as a storage facility for paper files of the Department of Human Services. The nonprofit Osborne Association has converted the former Fulton Correctional Facility in the Bronx into a reentry center for people being released. Indeed, it used a state fund expressly created for such repurposing.

This is all good news, but it is flirtation around the edges. Compare a program proposed by Hillary Clinton, running for president and seeking to balance clean energy with job losses in coal communities, who proposed a $30 billion plan to help coal miners adjust to the new economy.

We need a solution on the scale of the problem.

As we seek to cut the prison population in half, we will likely cut the number of corrections officers in half. Every dollar saved from the prison system is a dollar lost in a prison community, dollars totaling $58 billion in 2012. Entire towns and communities stand to lose their livelihoods. How do we expect them to respond?

Just as we need programs aimed for the economic success of people returning from prison, we need programs designed for the economic success of former prison towns. State and federal agencies need to create grant programs that provide seed money to help prison towns transition to a new economy. Foundations need to study successful alternative uses of former prison sites. Corrections professionals need help transitioning to new careers.

Reformers talk about closing prisons and moving the savings into drug treatment or community development in incarcerated neighborhoods. Those are good goals, of course, and I’ve long proposed them myself. But lately I’ve been asking a different question. Can some of the savings stay in the host community? How? Who has ideas when the mayor wonders what will happen if the prison closes?”

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I know they are missing from the reform agenda. We can’t decarcerate by changing the justice system alone. As a policy matter, we need alternatives for the prison community in the same way we need alternatives for the sentencing judge and jobs for people coming home. As a political matter, we want the host communities to embrace the change not fight it.

Such reforms are crucial part of sizeable, sustainable change. It will be hard to fix the push unless we also work on the pull.

About the author

Eric Lotke

Eric Lotke is an author, activist and scholar. His early work like The Real War on Crime was groundbreaking on criminal justice policy. His original research on “Prisoners of the Census” has led to new law in four states so far. His lawsuit over the exploitative price of phone calls from prison led to new rules by the FCC. Lotke’s new novel, Making Manna, is an uplifting tale of triumph over economic and criminal injustice.