By RINKER BUCK
The Hartford Courant
July 15, 2009
The next time you pick a place to live, don't be afraid to consider a prison town.
That anomalous fact of life about Connecticut came to light Tuesday when CNNMoney.com released its annual ranking of America's best places to live. Of the six Connecticut towns that made CNN's 2009 list — Cheshire, East Lyme, Somers, Simsbury, Tolland and Trumbull — three are home to large prison complexes run by the state.
CNN chooses its most desirable towns according to an elaborate number-crunching that considers such factors as town finances, cultural amenities, median home prices and the quality of schools.
"This is not just good news for Simsbury, but for the whole state of Connecticut," said Mary Glassman, the first selectman of Simsbury and the treasurer of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. "In recent years we've seen the state fall behind in important categories that affect whether businesses locate here — for example, our record for retaining the young in the state, or poverty rates in the cities.
"But in fact our towns remain very attractive places to live and this gives us something to take to companies when they are considering where to build."
But the managers who run many of the winning towns and scholars of America's prison history say that it's no surprise that towns that contain prisons also show up on lists of desirable places to live.
"I think we were probably pushed over the top in the CNN rankings because of the cultural amenities like summer concerts and an active theater group, but state prisons in town actually represent quite a financial advantage that people don't often look at," said David Pinney, the first selectman of Somers, where the state Department of Correction maintains two prisons, the medium security Osborn Correctional Institution and the maximum security Northern Correctional Institution, which houses Connecticut's death row.
Although prisons are not subject to local property taxes, Connecticut makes "in lieu" payments to towns with prisons, which in Somers' case came to $1.8 million this year, Pinney said. The state's formula for distributing casino revenues also favors towns with prisons, which is reflected in Somers' $2 million in state funds under that program. Finally, prisoners are considered residents of the town and help skew education aid formulas in the town's favor.
All told, Pinney said, Somers benefits from prison locations by as much as $4 million a year — a considerable advantage in a town with a $28 million budget.
"The revenue we receive from the state for having prisons is fairly significant, but the demands on the town are relatively minor," said Pinney.
"If the 350 acres that take up the state prison grounds were all residential housing, we'd have all those roads to plow and children to educate," he said. "The most costly use of land to the town is residential housing. It's a negative cash flow because what people pay in property taxes doesn't cover the cost of services we provide. But prisons are a positive cash flow because we're not providing costly services."
The other two prison towns that won in CNN's ranking this year are Cheshire, home to the Cheshire and Webster adult prison facilities and the Manson youth facility; and East Lyme, the home of the York Correctional Institution for female offenders and the minimum security Gates facility.
East Lyme and Cheshire have long been considered two of Connecticut's most desirable towns and Ethan Kleinberg, an associate professor of history at Wesleyan University, believes there is a logical connection between how states originally chose locations for prisons and why many people consider them desirable places to live today.
"The original idea for locating prisons, not to mention colleges and prep schools, was that these were places far from the corruptions of the city where criminals would find solitude and natural beauty to contemplate their lives and consider a plan for reformation," Kleinberg said. "For different reasons, people want to get away from cities today, and all the things that were thought to help transform prisoners in the 19th century are still there today — it's a rural area, quiet and safe.
Kleinberg believes that the symbolism of a prison town is also important.
"You wouldn't think people want to live in a prison town, but the fact that you can see the walls and know a prison is there means that crime has been taken care of because the prisoners are locked away," Kleinberg said.
"But people perceive that prisoners are not locked up in a city, so in a very strange way, a prison in your neighborhood conveys safety."
Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant
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