In one year's time, Tallulah townspeople have done something that many would consider impossible. They organized a grass-roots effort rooted in the idea that they could build a school to replace the notorious local juvenile prison. Then they wrote proposed legislation and got it passed. Act 721 created the Northeast Louisiana Delta Learning Center -- but the new law did not provide for site acquisition or funding for the center. Those are significant hurdles, but if they could be overcome, Tallulah might become the first place in the nation to replace a prison with a school. Longtime prisons researcher Tracy Huling calls the coalition's achievements "historic" and predicts that other prison towns across the nation will follow Tallulah's lead. That's truly something to cheer about.
The learning center would stand on the site of the now-closed Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth (later re-named the Swanson Correctional Center for Youth/Madison Parish Unit). This was the juvenile prison that New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield referred to in 1998 as a place "so rife with brutality, cronyism and neglect that many legal experts say it is the worst in the nation." In 2001, New Orleanian Avis Brock formed Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) after she'd talked with parents of kids held in Tallulah and heard "stories of the broken bones, the rapes, the abuse, the inequalities, the lack of education, the feelings of hopelessness and despair." Tallulah, to state Sen. Don Cravins, epitomized what was wrong with Louisiana's juvenile justice system. "Nothing stood out clearer," he says, "than the atrocities happening at the facility in Tallulah." A school on that site would represent a triumph of education over imprisonment for youth in Louisiana.
It also makes economic sense, according to research published in recent studies. During the 1980s and 1990s, as rural economies reeled from lost farms and shuttered factories, small towns across the nation began wooing private prisons and lobbying for them in state legislatures. Compared to other "industries of last resort" -- nuclear power plants, toxic waste dumps, and garbage incinerators -- correctional facilities were viewed as non-polluting industries that provided year-round employment and better-than-average benefits. In 1994, when Tallulah opened, it was hailed as an employer that could stabilize the area and hire locals in a town where more than one-third of the residents lived in poverty.
The New Landscape of Imprisonment, an April 2004 Urban Institute report, found that in the last 25 years, the number of state prisons alone increased from fewer than 600 to more than 1,000, an increase of about 70 percent. During the same time frame, the numbers of inmates in all correctional facilities increased 10-fold, from about 200,000 to about 2 million, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 2000, the Washington Post wrote, "Call it salvation through incarceration -- a prison-based development strategy that small towns all over America are pursuing, and changing economically and culturally because of it."
Today, townspeople in Tallulah say that their small town has indeed changed, but not in the way they'd foreseen. People look at each other differently in a prison town, says coalition leader and local attorney Moses Williams. "If you see a kid playing and something happens, you say, Look at that bad kid.'" Once the learning center becomes the hub of Tallulah, he believes, the response will change to, "That kid should be in school somewhere." We hope so.
Within the past two years, a number of new reports have questioned how much economic development, if any, prisons provide to their host towns. Researchers Terry Besser and Margaret Hanson examined changes in U.S. Census data for certain small towns between 1990 and 2000. In their 2003 report, The Development of Last Resort, they found that small towns with new state prisons experienced less economic growth than non-prison towns.
Conversely, the Economic Policy Institute examined nearly 180 studies for its newly released report Smart Money: Education and Economic Development. "There is a growing consensus," the report concludes, "that money spent wisely on education pays off not only for workers but also for communities and businesses." The report reserved special praise for community colleges, home to half of all postsecondary undergrads, because they "rescue many high school dropouts and prepare them for productive work." Raising skills of young adults has lifetime effects. According to the report, even a step-up of one grade level raises earnings and reduces out-of-wedlock births and welfare dependency. It also lessens the chance of arrest or incarceration. If things go as planned, Tallulah will do much more than replace a prison with a school. It will plant seeds of hope and opportunity where previously nothing grew. And, in the long run, the townspeople's hard work and forward-thinking attitude will also prevent many northeast Louisiana kids from a stint -- or a life -- in the type of facility that once brought such disgrace to their town.