Big House on the PrairieRise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation

Big House on the PrairieRise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation

John M. Eason

Print publication date: 2017

ISBN: 9780226410203

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


This book represents a new approach to the study of punishment by explaining the causes and consequences of the prison boom from the perspective of the rural, southern towns most directly affected by prison building. Prison placement is often oversimplified as a dubious choice for rural community leaders: a way to secure jobs that may stigmatize their communities. By relocating from Chicago, Illinois to Forrest City, Arkansas I uncovered the challenges facing a community that pursued and secured a prison facility. Some rural leaders see attracting a prison as a way to achieve order in a changing world that seems to be beyond their control. This manuscript shows how collective memory and a shared sense of community are also vital in differentiating the instrumental purposes of a prison (jobs) from its symbolism. In Forrest City, racial violence and stigma marred the collective memory of towns leaders and shared meaning of community. Given the legacy of shame associated with prisons, the need to overcome stigma plays an important role in building a prison. Rural towns want to build prisons not simply for economic wellbeing, but also to protect and improve their reputations by managing ghetto stigma. Prison demand is nuanced, multifaceted, and depends on context. By unraveling why leaders in Forrest City secured placement of the Forrest City Federal Correctional Facility, we can begin to understand the social, political, and economic shifts that drove to United States—“the land of the free”—to triple prison construction in just over thirty years.