Support for the proposed provincial prison in the Penticton area, and by Penticton council in particular, appears to be largely based on the belief it will provide substantial economic benefits.
A group of Washington State University researchers have cast serious doubt on this belief. Based on their 2004 analysis of 48 states, they concluded:
“We found no evidence that prison expansion has stimulated economic growth”; “We provide evidence that prison construction has actually impeded economic growth in those rural communities that were already growing at a slower pace”; and “. . . counties without a prison have the highest annual rate of growth and those with a newly built prison grow at the slowest pace.”
That research concluded that “once a county or community is known as a prison town, discussion of other types of economic development often evaporates.” The research news release noted “strong evidence that seeking to benefit economically from prison construction can be an inherently risky proposition.”
A 2010 update by the WSU research team has added “that prison construction impedes economic growth in rural counties, especially in counties that lag behind in educational attainment.” In such counties they noted “a negative relationship between the growth of new prisons and growth in private employment.”
Their results, published in the March 2010 issue of Social Science Quarterly, concluded: “prisons do not solve the economic problems of rural areas but do create new ones”; “economic multipliers associated with prisons are extremely limited . . .”; and “prisons may stigmatize host communities. Whatever (limited) gains are experienced as a result of the multiplier effect of prison jobs is always counterbalanced by the loss of businesses or people who leave or choose not to relocate in a prison town.”
These hard-hitting conclusions deserve attention, especially in the apparent absence of similar B.C. or Canadian studies. The U.S. definition of “rural county” appears relevant in Penticton and the South Okanagan which fit the criteria of less than 50,000 persons in an urban area and a total population of less than 100,000.
Our area also matches conclusions respecting local vulnerabilities — namely slow economic growth and educational attainment levels, which, while increasing, are historically lower than provincewide rates.
The above findings suggest that Penticton and the South Okanagan would be well advised to focus, as the researchers suggest, on “higher road economic development strategies that enhance employment prospects and quality of life . . . .” The Sustainable Building Technologies Centre at Okanagan College exemplifies one such strategy.