Monday, November 30, 2009

In Plain Sight | American For Life

What does this image have to do with incarceration?

This past summer, Architecture Minnesota featured my photo and commentary regarding a large-scale patriotic display in the small town of Appleton, MN. While I only spoke to the image's visible content in that “Place” feature, I have always associated a much broader and contradictory set of emotions with the photograph because of the less-photogenic memories I've made in this town.

Sure, as a child I came here with my family for all-American events like the annual Applefest celebration. But then, as part of my high school psychology class, I toured the town's largest employer--a privately-owned, for-profit prison. Eerily reminiscent of Scared Straight (and with what seemed like frighteningly little supervision), life-sentence inmates showed us around their home and told us how the rest of their days would be spent behind bars because they accidentally shot and killed their girlfriend in a botched drug deal.

Originally built to pull this agricultural community out of the farming recession of the 1980s, the 1600-bed Prairie Correctional Facility is one of several dozen privately-owned prison facilities run by companies like Corrections Corporation of America. Thanks to a combination of tighter drug laws around the country and states like Colorado, Washington, and Hawaii being short on space at their own government-run facilities, PCF operated at capacity for decades—providing hundreds of stable jobs in the process. However, now that many states have boosted their prison capacity (and due to rising costs associated with transporting criminals to the very, very midwest) PCF is struggling to fill its beds. While the company desperately pursues states like Pennsylvania and Minnesota with which to contract more inmates, there have already been devastating staff lay-offs, and the region now risks losing its most important source of tax revenue.

Am I the only one conflicted about this? Is this all ethically compatible somehow? Is this simply a case of a community doing what it needs to do in order to survive? Is it too late to choose a different path? Can a town name each one of its 34 streets after their fallen war heroes while at the same time betting its economic livelihood on the spoils of a private corporation which incarcerates public offenders from (mostly) out of state?

In my many trips through town since that high school field trip, I've noticed that Main Street is dark and the flags (above) are only lit up on holidays. So it's an unsettling case of something more disturbing 'hiding in plain sight' to always see a bright orange glow hovering over Appleton's night sky.

What does this image have to do with patriotism?

(And to confirm what you may have already suspected, yes, the inmates do have TVs, ping pong, Nintendo, and a host of other amenities. However, and trust me on this, regardless of what you hear about prisons being soft on crime, you still never, never, never want to go there.)

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