In 2007, Watson Professor John Eason moved with his family from Chicago to Forest City, Arkansas. At the time Eason was getting his PhD at the University of Chicago, and he moved to Forest City to learn about America’s mass incarceration crisis from a perspective that’s often overlooked: that of the towns where America’s prisons are located.
What effect do prisons have in these often underserved rural communities? And what role do these communities play in what scholars and activists often call the “prison industrial complex”?
What he found was a story that defied easy explanation.
“After a week in Forest City…everything I had thought I'd known about why we build prisons was completely changed,” Eason described.
His book about Forest City, Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation, explores the town’s politics, history, and culture to offer a nuanced picture of how prisons affect the communities that house them. In doing so, he unsettles many of the notions Americans have about the relationship between race, class, and mass incarceration.
On this episode of Trending Globally, Eason explains what brought him to Forest City, what he found once he got there, and how it changed his view of the prison-industrial complex. Whether you see prisons as a necessary part of society or an institution in need of abolition, John’s work provides essential context for envisioning a more humane and just way forward for America’s carceral system.
Learn more about and purchase Big House on the Prairie
DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. In Two Thousand-Seven, Watson Professor, John Eason who was at that time getting his PhD in Sociology, moved with his family from Chicago to Forrest City, Arkansas. He went there to try and understand America's mass incarceration crisis from a perspective that's often overlooked that of the places where America's prisons are located.
How do prisons wind up in one community and not another? What effect do they have on residents? And what role do these towns and cities play in what scholars and activists often call the prison industrial complex?
What John found was a story that defied easy explanation.
JOHN EASON: After a week in Forrest City, everything I had thought I known about why we built prisons was completely changed.
DAN RICHARDS: What he saw there also ran against the conventional wisdom held by many anti prison advocates. His book, Big House On The Prairie, Rise Of The Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation peels back the layers of Forrest City's politics, history, and culture and provides a nuanced picture of the effect that this prison has on residents of Forrest City.
In doing so, John disrupts some of the notions many of us have about the relationship between race, class, and mass incarceration in America.
Whether you see prisons as a necessary part of society, or an institution in need of complete abolition, or something else entirely, John's work provides valuable context for envisioning a more humane and just way forward for America's carceral system. And even if you don't feel strongly about America's prison system, his book is also just an amazing portrait of a town, one which will likely change how you think about rural America in the 21st century.
Before studying prisons, John worked as a community organizer on Chicago's south side, which at that time in the nineties and early two-thousands was a center of violent and drug related crime. But it was his experience there that ultimately set him on the path to Arkansas.
So we started there. In his role as a community organizer, John often worked with churches to connect with residents on the south side and help give those residents tools to articulate and advocate for their needs.
JOHN EASON: As a community organize my job was to agitate them. Show them the difference between the world they say they'd like to see. And then, talk to them about the world as it is and trying to move them to get to the point where they can make the world as it should be.
DAN RICHARDS: And at that time, in that neighborhood, there was one clear priority among residents.
JOHN EASON: Every time we had a meeting, the most important issue raised by churchgoers dealt around drugs. So either drug addiction, drug selling.
DAN RICHARDS: John helped residents start campaigns to crack down on what were known as drug houses. Homes or buildings in the neighborhood that operated as the center of the area's drug trade. As John put it, the work was often grueling and upsetting but also often really inspiring.
JOHN EASON: When you have a 5 foot 1, 65-year-old retired schoolteacher standing up next to a 6 foot 5 police commander and demanding that he do something within one month, right? In front of 200 people, he has to answer, yes or no.
Are you going to close the three drug houses we've identified within the next month? Yes or no? If he says no, he's disappointing people. If he says yes, he's being polarized in this moment. But if he says yes, he can win and he can have more trust built with the community.
And that's what community organizing is really about. Trying to take control over your neighborhood, your surroundings, your city, your country. That's what the principles of community organizing are about.
DAN RICHARDS: Over the years, these residents found success closing a number of drug houses on the south side. But there was a flip side to their success.
One night at a meeting on the eve of the closing of another drug house, a church member shared some upsetting news. In their mission to crack down on drug related crimes in the neighborhood--
JOHN EASON: We literally had sent one of the parishioners, sent their child to prison.
DAN RICHARDS: The arrests they had advocated for included that of a young man whose family went to one of the churches involved in all this organizing. Folks at the meeting were of course, upset.
What would prison do to these young men and their families? And who would ultimately benefit? Their community or a different community? As some people John worked with came to see it--
JOHN EASON: His belief that we're locking up Black folks in Chicago in particular, to send them downstate for white corrections officers to get jobs.
DAN RICHARDS: It was a view of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex that many people had and still have. As one church member described it to John, the choices for young Black men in their neighborhood back then--
JOHN EASON: He said, you either get a job or you become a job.
DAN RICHARDS: After years of working 60 and 70 hours a week organizing, John ended up going back to school for a master's in public policy. He planned to then go back in organizing or maybe into government. But the seemingly unsolvable issue he had faced as an organizer about how to reduce violence in a community without perpetuating a racist prison system stuck with him. And one day, while in school--
JOHN EASON: I remember it like it's yesterday. I had ran an analysis, looking at where prisons were being built.
DAN RICHARDS: John assumed he knew the answer, that prisons were being built in rural white communities and their racists policies don't just disproportionately imprison Black men, they disproportionately employ and benefit white men. Instead, what he found--
JOHN EASON: As you increase the percent Black and Latino in a rural community, the probability of getting a prison increases. Southern rural towns with higher percentages of Blacks and Latinos were more likely to build a prison in the nineteen-nineties.
DAN RICHARDS: In other words, the prisons that were being built during the quote, "prison boom of the nineteen-nineties" might actually have disproportionately provided jobs for people of color. This was not just a surprise to John. It also was not a popular finding among his peers.
JOHN EASON: I published a paper on this. It took me 7 and 1/2 years to get that paper published.
DAN RICHARDS: John ended up staying in school and getting his PhD in Sociology at the University of Chicago. He felt like there was more to understand about all this. As he was finishing his PhD, John got connected through a colleague, to some residents of Forrest City, Arkansas.
A small town that had become home to a federal prison in Nineteen Ninety-Seven. John went down and visited.
JOHN EASON: After a week in Forrest City, it may have been three days, everything I had thought I'd known about why we built prisons was completely changed.
There were Black folks there that wanted to prison. I interviewed the sitting mayor at the time who was a city council member and president of the NAACP when they were deciding if they were going to get the prison.
And he told me-- this is the head of the NAACP local chapter. He told me he wanted the prison, which goes against everything the NAACP stands for. Black people living in Forrest City, Arkansas wanted the prison, right? And they had enough agency to potentially stop it.
Instead, they used their agency to advocate for the prison.
DAN RICHARDS: It became clear that John, along with many other scholars and activists were missing something crucial about how the prison industrial complex works in America. So, with his wife and two young children, he moved to Forrest City, Arkansas in Two Thousand-Seven.
Four cities on the eastern edge of Arkansas, almost near Tennessee, about 30 miles from the Mississippi River, its two most notable residents really tell you a lot about the town. One--
JOHN EASON: Forrest City gave us Al Green.
DAN RICHARDS: The other most famous resident?
JOHN EASON: The town is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest. Founder of the KKK. Not a nice man.
DAN RICHARDS: In Two Thousand-Seven, the year John moved there, the town had a population of about 15,000 people. It was 60% Black, and 35% white, and about 8% Hispanic. And as John puts it, it was really two towns under one name.
JOHN EASON: The richer white folks live up in the hills.
DAN RICHARDS: The hills, which were on the east side of the town. And the west side, meanwhile, was significantly poor and was where the majority of the town's Black residents live. It was known as--
JOHN EASON: The bottoms.
DAN RICHARDS: John describes the bottoms as--
JOHN EASON: It's a rural ghetto.
JOHN EASON: Dis-invested, predominantly Black, highly segregated neighborhood with a lot of poverty. Also, public housing is a way of concentrating poverty and creating residential segregation.
DAN RICHARDS: In terms of disinvestment, poverty, and crime, this neighborhood wasn't all that dissimilar from where John had worked back in Chicago. Deindustrialization, globalization, and austerity had destroyed the town's economy in the second half of the 20th century.
The lack of employment options for lower income residents, combined with the town's location along Interstate 40 made it a hub for interstate drug trafficking, which led to more crime and to more disinvestment and fewer options. And like in so many cities that suffer these types of issues, the burden fell disproportionately on communities of color.
In Forrest City, for example--
JOHN EASON: The challenges that Forrest City faces is the control that the white elite have and their racist practices that sort of crippled a town, from dis-investing in education, public school education, starting a segregated high school.
DAN RICHARDS: So, about that segregated high school, white residents who could afford it often sent their kids to a private Catholic school in town. And of course, wasn't officially segregated but it was essentially segregated.
And in case there was any question as to the intent of this school, its name helped send the message.
JOHN EASON: Robert E. Lee Academy.
DAN RICHARDS: Housing in Forrest City was also defined by racist policies and sentiments. As John described though, this was hardly uncommon in small rural towns like Forrest City.
JOHN EASON: There's typically in a town of 14,000, 15,000 like this. There's typically 10 to 12 families that control half the wealth. And they decide who gets to come in town, and where they get to invest, and how they get to invest.
DAN RICHARDS: John is Black. And while he was looking for an apartment to move to, he realized that a small group of white landlords--
JOHN EASON: They controlled my entrance into the town.
DAN RICHARDS: John heard stories during his research of a literal list that landlords kept off properties that they did not want rented to Black people.
JOHN EASON: And I couldn't even move my family into the town because of their racist practices of not allowing Black folks to rent in white neighborhoods.
DAN RICHARDS: Finally, John was vouched for by local leaders in the town and got an apartment. But these types of informal segregation practices--
JOHN EASON: Couple that with, they opened hundreds of units of public housing from Nineteen Seventy on and built hundreds of units out. And they did that within a third of a square mile. This is all the while while the richer white folks live up in the hills.
This third of a square mile of public housing is put in the bottoms, in the poor lower lying part of town. This is a recipe for disaster.
DAN RICHARDS: And as John sees it, residents of quote, "rural ghettos" in many ways have it even worse than people in marginalized communities in big cities.
JOHN EASON: Talk about the isolation of people who live in urban ghettos, they can get on a bus and go to Starbucks, and get a job as a barista, and get health care.
DAN RICHARDS: At least, theoretically. In Forrest City, not so much.
JOHN EASON: There's no Starbucks in the rural south. They just don't exist.
DAN RICHARDS: Despite all this, John, of course, came to feel a real affection for Forrest City.
JOHN EASON: I don't want people to think that I'm disparaging this town. There are people there that love this town. There are people who went away, were educated, came back, and were trying to work to make this town the best that they thought it could be.
There are great people there. They have big hearts. Even though they have challenges with their educational system, they'll manage to send people to universities. While I was at University of Chicago, they were undergrads that had come from Forrest City High School.
They're also a very proud place. They're big into sports. Friday Night Lights, Friday Night Football. All of those things.
So I don't want people to think, oh, it's just a terrible depressed place. At the same time, there are serious challenges there.
DAN RICHARDS: Challenges that for decades, no one had been able to find a way out of for this town. It was in this context, that in December Nineteen Eighty-Nine, the director of the Chamber of Commerce in Forrest City got a phone call from the governor as it were.
JOHN EASON: Bill Clinton calls him. And he thinks it's a friend prank calling him.
DAN RICHARDS: It was not a prank. It was Governor Bill Clinton. His administration was looking to build a prison in the state. And they were thinking of siting it in Forrest City. They were thinking, maybe a private prison.
But a small group of influential people in the town who were involved in the decision, Chamber of Commerce members, the mayor, local judges, they passed on that idea.
JOHN EASON: They don't think private prisons are going to bring enough revenue. So they balk at that idea. But they keep thinking about prison. Having a clear vision of, OK, how do we get the best type of prison given our limited options?
DAN RICHARDS: Now all of this, depending on your view on the subject, can sound like the most sinister version of the prison industrial complex.
JOHN EASON: There was basically four old white dudes, right? In a back room. So this really sounds nefarious.
DAN RICHARDS: But from there, he found the story took a turn. These backroom brainstorms and dealings ended up leading to a proposal for a federal prison in Forrest City. Town leaders held a public meeting to gauge residents reactions.
JOHN EASON: 300 people for this public hearing to voice their opinions and concerns about whether or not they wanted the prison.
DAN RICHARDS: This group of old white dudes, they did not know what to expect. And they certainly didn't see what was coming.
JOHN EASON: They described it as a revival. Like a church revival. This is a town where Black and white people are highly segregated.
There's this contentious relationship between Black and white folks. In this town, they all wanted the prison. There were a couple of voices, both of them were more left-leaning and brought up the fact that Black folks are disproportionately incarcerated. And Black people shut them down because they said this will do good for our community.
So, the four white guys were shocked. Everybody was shocked.
DAN RICHARDS: Why did so many people, both Black and white feel so enthusiastically positive about a prison coming to their town. Here's what John found.
So a step back. A prison as an addition to your community has a lot going against it. In the parlance of urban planners and activists, a prison--
JOHN EASON: Is known as a locally undesirable land use. Architecturally are hideous, in addition to everything that happens inside of them. This isn't my opinion. This is general knowledge.
DAN RICHARDS: They're the type of project that would often provoke resident backlash. Something people might call NIMBY or NIMBY-ism today. Stands for, Not In My Backyard. But for somewhere like Forrest City--
JOHN EASON: Most of these places that are getting prisons, their backyard is pretty awful.
DAN RICHARDS: Crime, disinvestment, failing infrastructure, this was the backyard that many residents in Forrest City lived with. And it's these types of towns, ones with struggling backyards already that often welcome locally undesirable land uses.
To residents of Forrest City, a prison might be, to use a phrase from John's book, "The best worst option for Forrest City." Here's what he means.
JOHN EASON: So if you look at the universe of locally undesirable land uses, which could be anything depending on what neighborhood you're in, from a church, to a stadium, to a liquor store, those can all be locally undesirable land uses. Think about all the various forms of environmental harm from toxic waste facilities. I'm thinking of Pittsburgh Paint and Glass.
You go down to Cancer Alley in Louisiana, incinerators. There's a lot of hazardous stuff being produced across the US and hazardous waste materials being dumped in communities. Getting a federal prison is pretty good compared to the universe of what your development options
DAN RICHARDS: As one Black resident summed it up to John--
JOHN EASON: Hey, a prison beats the hell out of a paper mill.
DAN RICHARDS: So, in Nineteen Ninety-Seven, Federal Correctional Facility, comma, Forrest City was opened. The natural next question then of course is, how did this prison affect Forrest City, Arkansas? And who did it benefit?
Here's what John found. Both for Forrest City in particular, and also in his wider research into the effects of prisons on rural communities.
JOHN EASON: So in that community, it depends on who you talk to. But pretty much, everyone agreed they're beneficial. The results are quite clear. Basically, when you build a prison, a place that gets a prison versus one that does not, the place to get to prison sees a drop in unemployment, and a drop in poverty, and an increase in median family income, and then, median home value.
DAN RICHARDS: In other words, prisons definitely bring economic benefits to towns like Forrest City. And they do it without polluting water supplies, spewing carcinogens, or strip mining the land. You can hate prisons. But for a town like Forrest City, they bring certain benefits.
But the question John really wanted to answer was, benefits for whom? Is it really like he had been told back in his organizing days in Chicago?
JOHN EASON: We're locking up Black folks to send them down state for white corrections officers to get jobs.
DAN RICHARDS: Well.
JOHN EASON: I had ran another analysis looking at Black unemployment versus white unemployment in towns that built prisons. And so, while white poverty and white unemployment decrease in towns that get prisons, Black poverty decreases and Black unemployment decreases even faster.
DAN RICHARDS: This idea, that in at least some places at some times, prisons have disproportionately helped Black people, that was not welcome in some of John's scholarly circles.
JOHN EASON: I got really nasty reviews about this.
DAN RICHARDS: And to be clear, many activists and scholars, including many who would call themselves prison abolitionists, acknowledge this reality. But back when John was living in Forrest City, this understanding was far less popular. And it still irks some people.
It's even led to suspicion about John's motivations as a scholar. But John's quick to explain, as I get the sense he has had to before.
JOHN EASON: I'm not taking money from the Corrections Corporation of America. I'm not part of the American Correctional Association, right? I'm not advocating for more jobs for corrections officers.
Don't get it twisted. I am not an advocate for prisons. It sounds like I'm advocating to build prisons is a way to help Black poverty and Black unemployment, but that is not what I'm saying at all. I'm saying, if you want to understand how to loosen the grip to prison has on rural communities of color, we need to come to terms with this.
DAN RICHARDS: Which doesn't mean we're doomed to entrenched towns like Forrest City in poverty if we want to reduce our prison population. It can feel like a lose-lose. But as John sees it, there are, of course, other options.
JOHN EASON: If you want to end prisons, if you want to abolish them, we have to responsibly decarcerate.
DAN RICHARDS: So, we have to invest in rural communities of color, right? So if it's the green new deal, if you want to go that route, is there some hybrid tech in green industry that could form in a rural community of color? How do we prepare those communities to attract new forms of development? If you do that, you can get local officials possibly to let go of their prison.
DAN RICHARDS: The fact that a prison itself is a good seeming deal for residents of a place like Forrest City, that is perhaps the most fundamental issue we need to address.
JOHN EASON: These are public works projects that go in communities of color. That's a raw deal, right?
That is incredible to think that is disproportionately gone into Black communities and then Black people disproportionately work for the prison system. That is a raw deal.
DAN RICHARDS: And to undo that raw deal and to make a better deal, we need to be clear eyed about the effects of our current system, even if some of those effects might benefit communities of color in some ways. Because no matter the benefits, John thinks we can and should aim higher.
JOHN EASON: You go to rural communities of color today, you almost feel like there are some people that have been so left behind. It almost feels antebellum. So when we give people really bad options, we should not expect good things.
We need to rethink how we're going to build out communities where you can have liberation, actual liberation, not just economic but political and social liberation in rural communities of color.
DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Sam McKeever-Holtzman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions.
If you like this show, please subscribe to it wherever you listen to podcasts. And leave a rating and review on Apple or Spotify. It really helps others to find us. We'll put more information and links to John Eason's work and book in the show notes, as well as links to the Watson Institute's other podcasts.
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