Last weekend, I drove five hours to Glenville, West Virginia to visit my boyfriend in a federal prison. Before embarking on the journey, I ironed a white button-down shirt and a pair of black slacks. I packed the title to my vehicle. I sprayed my car with Febreze. I checked my exterior car lights to ensure they were working correctly.

I drove the speed limit. I kept my music volume down. I restricted my rest stops to five minutes.

Glenville, West Virginia’s population of approximately 1,500 people is overwhelmingly white. The rural town is home to Glenville State College, Gilmer County High School, Glenville Elementary School, and the Federal Correctional Institution Gilmer (FCI Gilmer), which holds 1,497 inmates. Gilmer County, in which Glenville, WV is the county seat, has one of the highest poverty rates in the state at 27.1 percent. The median household income is under 40,000 dollars a year.

In small towns across the country, with population sizes comparable to big-city high schools, prisons have become a welcomed economic security blanket. Just this March, the associated press reported that federal officials had “approved a long-discussed plan to build another prison in eastern Kentucky, sealing a deal to bring hundreds of jobs to an area hard hit by the loss of coal work.”

FCI Gilmer was built in 2003. Prior to Glenville’s classification as a “rural prison town”, the community experienced success in several industries including commercial traffic, natural gas, and oil. Nevertheless, it appears Glenville has been on a slow road to recovery since the devastation of a flood in 1985.

National discourse would have the public believe that since 2000, declining unionization and increased economic hardship have contributed to political shifts, increased racial tensions, and the welcoming of prison facilities to cushion economic hardship. However, a closer look at voting records and the growth of rural prisons would reveal a different pattern of behavior.

Gilmer County voted Republican in two distinct elections. The 1972 election of Richard Nixon won Gilmer County and then 1984 Ronald Reagan carried the vote. Both candidates used racial dog-whistles of the “silent majority” to secure their victory. Gilmer County prior to 200 however, voted primarily democratic. This loyalty to the democratic party post-1984 would mirror the voting records of other populations with limited access to employment and resources. So it appears, that Gilmer County has been willing to alter its political ideology in favor of a beneficial race ideology.

Glenville’s willingness to use prison facilities as recession-proof economic insurance is an example of how white people leverage their power locally; voting against their own economic interest in favor of their racial interest.

On a national scale, Gilmer County is nearly invisible, yet the proposition of hosting a prison facility in their county offers aid to their economic hardship. The state appears to supplement the power that Glenville lacks through the subjugation of other human beings.

The same goes for many Southern, minority-majority, towns where the building of prisons brings a promise of employment. According to Timeline, during the prison boom of the 1990’s rural southern towns were 12 times more likely to receive a prison than northeastern or Midwestern states. Again, the state appears to reward power to minority-majority, rural towns, through the subjugation of less powerful bodies.

Yet, contrary to touted narratives, prisons have failed to yield any significant economic gain to host communities. 

The state behaves in the same manner as the BBQ Bettys and Coupon Carls of the world who irresponsibly call the police on black people minding their own business. Or neighborhood vigilantes who stalk little black boys at night. Or officers who use fear as a disguise for prejudice. The state appears to validate their power by removing consequence.

Most Americans would like to believe that racism in the United States is a mechanical glitch exploited by bias and a particular group of far-right whack jobs. However, the use of prisons to supplement the economic power of rural towns displays a pattern of behavior more malignant.

A mechanical glitch would prove an easier task than transforming a nation. A system malfunction would be tangible, therefore necessitating policy change or cultural sensitivity training. Racism is an institutional problem in the United States. It is not the power of individual actions, but the power of the institutions that support those actions that demand change.

This visit revealed to me that redeeming a nation requires hard work. The type of work, us Americans, like to delegate to immigrants.