How Drugs and Prisons Became Replacement Economies

The following is excerpted from Chapter Three of Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, the explosive new book by Charles Shaw, appearing weekly throughout 2010 on Reality Sandwich.

Nestled among the trees on a prime hilltop just east of the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities area, you will find the East Moline Correctional Center (EMCC). You may think "nestled" a strange verb to use while describing a prison, and normally I would agree. With the exception of maybe Alcatraz, which is closed, prison plots are generally not known for their idyllic vistas. You're more likely to find them intentionally segregated from the larger population centers, surrounded by cornfields, desert, badlands, or swamp, looking flat and boxy and relatively nondescript but for the tell-tale razor wire fences and guard towers.

The history of how East Moline became a prison, however, begins in a slightly different milieu more than a hundred years ago when this particular hilltop complex opened as the Western Illinois Hospital for the Insane. Set high above the noise and smoke of what was then a bustling Turn-of-the-Century river port, the hospital was situated inside a calm and picturesque campus with ancient, massive trees and a bloated creek, a pacifying setting for those acutely on edge.

Eventually renamed the East Moline Mental Health Center, the hospital closed in 1980 and the complex was sold to the Illinois Department of Corrections, who converted it into what they call a "Level 6 minimum-security prison." By some grace, the soporific grounds left a unique legacy; East Moline is the only facility in the notoriously vicious Illinois prison system with a "free movement" policy that allows inmates, at regularly scheduled times, to freely move about certain approved areas of the grounds.

Because of its setting, the movement policy, and the prison's uncharacteristically low incidence rate of violence, EMCC is known to all as "The Sweet Moline." If you had to go to prison in Illinois, this would be the place you'd want to end up.

Keep in mind, this is still the joint. It is still filled with some bad men, serious thugs, the bulk of whom are not graced with a sense of patience. The potential for something real bad to happen exists at every moment. The motivation to stay out of a worse place does influence behavior, but as my story will show, East Moline is anything but a safe place.

Most of the inmates at East Moline come from two groups: first time nonviolent short-timers, like me, who are perceived as low escape risks; and certain long-timers who are coming to the end of their sentences. Long-timers are perceived as an even lower escape risk and East Moline is meant to serve as their transitional facility; it's the closest thing to a social environment, let alone free movement, that many of them have seen for perhaps decades.

According to IDOC stats, East Moline maintains an average daily inmate population of 1,100, generally broken down demographically in the following manner (which I was able to confirm by sneaking looks at the daily "count" sheets distributed to the C.O.'s): on any given day there are roughly 700 black, 250 white, and 150 Latino inmates. The official capacity of East Moline is only 688, making it overcrowded by some 37%. The average age of the inmates is 34, and the average annual cost per inmate is around $20,000, which is at the low end of the range reported by IDOC. On the other end of the spectrum is the Supermax prison in Tamms, IL, where inmates spend twenty-three hours a day alone in their single-man cells. There the annual cost per inmate is around $90,000 a year.

As is the case with every facility in the IDOC system, the prison in East Moline is an essential part of a local economy that has seen better days. Historically, Illinois prosperity was powered by the twin-engine economy of manufacturing and agriculture. Year after year the state ranked among the highest agricultural producers, and the great central metropolis of Chicago was the hub where raw materials were bought, processed, packaged and shipped around the world.

The Quad Cities--Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa--is a sprawling metropolitan area of 400,000 that spreads along both sides of the Mississippi River three hours due west of Chicago. For most of the twentieth century the region supported a thriving agricultural and industrial economy specializing in the manufacture of large-scale farm equipment. All the titans of that industry had plants in the area: International Harvester was in Rock Island, Case IH and Caterpillar were in Bettendorf, and John Deere was in Moline.

Over the past 40 years, however, those economic engines corroded badly. Beginning in the late 1970's, shifting conditions caused by foreign competition led these manufacturers to close down their operations in the Quad Cities. Deindustrialization emptied out most of the rustbelt cities of the Midwest while Big Agribusiness firms like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland consolidated the bulk of Midwestern family farms. In the last fifty years alone the number of Illinois farms shrank by more than 60%, dropping from 200,000 to under 76,000 and still falling.[2] This precipitated a period of significant decline throughout the Midwest in which population, land values, and per capita incomes fell sharply. The region was also hit hard by the closing of a number of military bases following the end of the Cold War.

With the passage in the 1990s of international trade agreements like the WTO and NAFTA, the symbiotic relationship between Chicago industry and Illinois agriculture largely faded. Chicago forged ahead with a new postindustrial economy while the rest of the region was left behind. Although efforts at revitalization were made throughout the last two decades, prosperity has not yet returned to the Quad Cities and scores of other rail stop towns throughout the Rust Belt, where you now find prisons.

Unable to find decent jobs, and unwilling to take what's left, many of those left behind in the transformation to a global economy--what writers like Noam Chomsky and Christian Parenti have termed "surplus labor" or "surplus population"--turned to the two sides of the War on Drugs for economic sustenance: drug dealing and criminal justice. Cops and prisons, drugs and guns, McDonald's and Wal-Mart ... these were the replacement economies America had to offer in her postindustrial age if you couldn't get a college degree and become a (generally white) white collar professional. With so many people needing work, not everyone got to choose which replacement economy they would end up in.

The rural prisons built during the prison boom of the 1980s and 1990s were end products of the War on Drugs producing hundreds of thousands of jobs in economically depressed regions. Between 1990 and 1999 a new prison opened somewhere in rural America every fifteen days, so that by the end of the decade, the US had the largest prison system in the world and had imprisoned more black people than South Africa ever did during the apartheid regime. With drug arrests representing around 60% of the total annual arrests in Illinois, and around 110,000 nonviolent drug offenders passing through the Illinois correctional system every year--most of whom come from the Chicago Metropolitan Area--a new dependent link between Chicago and rural Illinois was forged: urban prisoners, rural guards. What they all have in common is that they are poor and uneducated.

In these downstate communities the War on Drugs is a godsend to almost anyone who can get a coveted prison job. When you get down to the local level people aren't thinking about a global drug economy, they're trying to feed their families. Yet even if they too are poor and hungry, they don't see themselves as living in the same situation as poor people in the inner cities. Prison jobs are sold to the public not just as an escape from the go-nowhere service economy, but also as a noble and necessary public service, a job where you can wear a uniform with the American flag and kick ass if necessary.

My friend author/activist Bryan Brickner grew up in Scales Mound, Illinois, not far from the Quad Cities. He puts it this way: "In those kinds of towns the mentality is, we're helping out, we're housing the criminals of the state. We're providing a good and necessary service and we're risking our lives to do it."

Bryan comes from a farming family and he served in the Army during the first Gulf War. He's seen firsthand the transformation of rural Illinois after farm consolidation, the emergence of bedroom communities, and the closing of military bases. Most people moved away. For those who remained, IDOC later came knocking, offering economic panaceas in the form of prisons.

Of course, sometimes the panacea turned out to be poison. Nowhere is that more evident than in the village of Thomson, IL, just down the road from Scales Mound, the most recent site of IDOC prison construction. Back in the late 1990s, facing some of the highest unemployment rates in the state, Thomson was wooed into building a $140 million dollar maximum security prison. "The main reason we built a prison," Village President Merri Jo Enloe told me back in 2005, "was because everyone needed a job."

The prison was to deliver 750 permanent jobs and millions in economic development grants and service contracts. The state borrowed the money to build the prison and to upgrade Thomson's roads, rail crossings, and water systems in order to serve the increased demand. Tax incentives permitted the Village to bolster their population count by adding the eighteen hundred future residents of the prison, which is not a bad deal when you learn that the Village receives $110 a year per resident from the state as a reimbursement on taxes paid. This action alone would have increased town revenue by 61% by adding another $198,000. You know you're in a small town when your entire municipal budget is under half a million dollars. That 61% increase would be a veritable windfall, and was mighty enticing.

Frankly, the only resistance to the prison was racially motivated. When you interview a town's highest elected official, the last thing you expect to hear the person say--particularly in this day and age, and even more so, on the record--is, "this is a predominantly white area, and there was a lot of objection to minorities coming through the community, particularly from white transplants from the Chicago area who felt that the prison would bring to our community the kind of people they were trying to get away from by moving out here." Her statement belies so much of the generalized racism that drives Illinois society and its politics. The people of Thomson did not want black people coming through their town, period.

Never one to miss an opportunity to exploit prejudice or fear, in response the state promised increased funding for the Thomson Police and the Carroll County Sheriff's Department, despite a very low crime rate. As if to justify the expanded law enforcement, miraculously, an unsubstantiated rumor began to cycle through the community that "drug trafficking" in the area would increase because of the prison. The net take for Thomson? More concrete and steel, more badges, and more guns for a sleepy little farming town. This is, to the letter, how the War on Drugs has worked for the last twenty-five years in communities all across America.

Despite all this outlay and rigmarole, the new Thomson Correctional Center never opened as planned in 2001 because the State of Illinois, facing a $4 billion budget deficit caused by the recession, couldn't afford to operate it, so it sat empty for the entire decade. Many residents went into debt or bankruptcy either starting or upgrading their local businesses to meet the increased traffic that was expected to come though the village, and things only got worse with the economic collapse of 2008. Then, in late 2009 the Obama Administration announced that it was considering moving detainees held at Guantanamo Bay to Thomson, and that the prison would hold military tribunals for "enemy combatants." The announcement released a maelstrom of Republican histrionics about a wave of jihad descending upon Chicago, but in the end the Obama Administration won out. Thomson would become Gitmo in the Heartland.

Thomson residents received their final slap in the face when they learned they would not be eligible for most of the prison jobs, since they would have to be filled at the federal and military level, and neither foreign nationals nor "enemy combatants" held in detention can be counted on the tax roles.

Closing a prison proves to be nearly impossible without a major political shit storm. In 2002, facing the same budget crisis that was keeping Thomson closed, then-Governor George Ryan closed the 141-year-old Joliet prison and attempted to close the prisons in Sheridan and our very own East Moline. He was met with fierce resistance from elected officials and the union representing correctional officers. Former East Moline Mayor Jose Moreno sent Ryan a letter in April of 2002 in which he expressed that closing the prison "is a touchy and important issue," imploring "we cannot afford to lose these jobs." In the end, both facilities remained open, Sheridan got a multi-million dollar retrofit to be a drug-treatment facility, and millions more was spent on the new processing center in Stateville.

When Ryan's successor, the now-disgraced, cartoonishly-corrupt Rod Blagojevich, faced the same budget gaps in 2003, he also tried to close older prisons in Pontiac, Vandalia and St. Charles. Like Ryan before him, state lawmakers stepped in and blocked his attempt for the same reason: jobs. Then, in early 2008, Blagojevich announced his plan to close the old Stateville max prison and transfer all the inmates to the unopened Thomson facility. While it was clear in this plan that the inmates would be transferred, it was not so clear whether the correctional staff would join them, and Blagojevich was not exactly forthcoming. The plan was dropped and the issue rapidly faded into the background after Blagojevich was indicted and forced from office.

Pat Quinn, the former Lieutenant Governor who inherited Blagojevich's mantle only to face even greater deficits then any of his predecessors, opted to try to release 1,000 nonviolent offenders rather than close any prisons. Political opponents immediately resorted to fearmongering, the primary tool of prison politics and criminal justice policy, shrieking the expected, "He's letting dangerous criminals loose in our streets!" Quinn, fearing the dreaded "soft-on-crime" curse which is political suicide, ultimately bowed to pressure after only 170 had been released. To make their point clear to him, state lawmakers introduced a bill codifying into law a mandatory 60-day incarceration for every person sentenced to time in IDOC, even those with good time credit and time served--those Quinn wanted to release--ensuring prison time for all petty nonviolent offenders regardless of circumstance.

Continue reading Chapter Three.

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