Originally appeared in CSU’s College of Liberal Arts Magazine. Story by Carmen Ruyle Hardy.

Economic viability and the health of a community: tackling wicked problems begins at the kitchen table

When an oil and gas boom busts, a rural community can be left in such poverty that residents are willing to consider all possibilities for creating jobs and saving their town: even an ICE detention facility run by a company with a history of mismanagement.

Evanston, Wyoming (population ~12,000) is one of many small towns in the U.S. tackling what have become multi-dimensional problems involving energy extraction, economics, globalization, the criminal justice system, environmental impacts, public health, marginalized populations, and politics local and national. These wicked problems around rural development and rural poverty aren’t unique to Evanston; they are felt by thousands of rural residents across the country.

“As we’ve experienced globalization, communities that rely on product-driven markets like agriculture or energy are impacted in such dramatic ways,” Dr. Tara Opsal explains. “As a result, it’s not just the economy that’s impacted but also the fabric of the community.” Dr. Opsal, associate professor of sociology and a working criminologist, studies contributing factors and complications of problems like Evanston’s.

Oil rig

After oil and gas companies leave small towns dependent on a large employer, many communities petition for prison sites to move in as a job source replacement.

How do you solve a problem like economic recovery?

After Evanston’s oil and gas booms that resulted in economic busts in the 1970-80s, and again recently, many long-time residents moved away in search of jobs to support their families. Those who stayed comprise one of the poorest communities in Wyoming, with 22 percent of residents living below the poverty line, nearly double the state’s percentage. In 2017, in hopes of boosting a waning local economy, town leaders began talks with the third largest private prison company in the U.S. (and one with a troubled history of neglect).

Environmental sociologists have found rural communities to be especially vulnerable economically when they rely on natural resource development like oil and gas. After energy companies leave, some small towns campaign to be prison sites in order to attract another large employer they hope will support their residents and community. Findings by social scientists also show that correctional facilities degrade nearby ecosystems and increase public health hazards.

The U.S. prison industry is booming due to harsh sentencing policies introduced in the 1970s that have caused the U.S.’s incarceration rate to rise by 500 percent, according to criminologists. Crime has not increased at that rate, yet more than 1,000 prisons have been built in the U.S. over the last 40 years. Rural communities have been disproportionately recruited as “host towns” for prison facilities despite research showing little to no long-term benefits to tax bases and population growth. In fact these effects are negative if the prison also exits and leaves behind a massive, empty facility.  

“A multi-dimensional issue with a lot of causes clearly cannot be solved with any one thing,” says Opsal. “A lot of rural communities are turning to singular answers as a cure-all for a lack of development, for a shifting economy, for the generations that are leaving the community. Town leaders want what’s best for their communities and to see them flourish economically, but exactly how to do that is complicated.” 

Hearing from the residents of Evanston

In talking with residents, Dr. Opsal has found that the pros and cons of the facility are also multi-dimensional. Here is what a few residents told her as they weighed the many tensions and tradeoffs in re-building the health of their community.

Creating jobs vs. detaining immigrants

“People want good paying jobs because we’ve lost the oil and gas related stuff, and, here’s an opportunity, but people don’t want that kind. That’s the issue. I want it, but I don’t want that kind,” says one resident. “If you had the perfect opportunity, wouldn’t that be grand? But where does that happen? Especially in a community this size.”

“The federal government is going to award that facility somewhere to someone, and some community in this area of the nation is going to get a couple hundred jobs. And I can’t for the life of me believe that we don’t want those jobs, and that we can’t use those jobs,” explains another resident. “I’m in favor for this community because of the jobs period. And the economic diversity that it would help enhance.”

Bolstering the economy vs. worrying about loved ones

“I don’t like to see my friends living in fear. And it’s not that they’re undocumented, but some of their families might be, or their acquaintances might be,” one resident says. “It’s no way to live. I like these people. They’re hardworking people. They contribute to our community. And I feel like that’s just being disregarded by those that want to imprison people who haven’t done anything wrong, who are awaiting asylum hearings or whatever they’re waiting for. They are not illegal. They’re undocumented.”

Short-term benefits of attracting a large employer vs. long-term implications if they leave

“Well, the history of these private prison companies is not great,” another resident explains. “Their track record isn’t good. They’re in it for themselves or rather to make money for themselves.”

Capitalizing on land value vs. protecting a state park

“I think it’s a horrible idea. I hate that location. That state park is one of the best things that we have. It’s beautiful,” explains one resident concerned about the proposed ICE facility’s proximity to Bear River State Park. “Personally I just don’t think it’s the right thing for our community. And I’m not saying I necessarily know what is, but I don’t think that’s it.”

Finding Common Ground

Dr. Opsal’s work brings to light the complicated issues rural areas face in balancing economics, the environment, and community cohesion. She and a team of undergraduate and graduate students are finishing transcriptions of 25 recent interviews and analyzing Evanston’s historical and demographic information.

They will combine this data with interviews provided by Evanston’s museum. “Wyoming has an extensive oral history collection and part of it is housed in Evanston. About two decades ago a historian collected oral history interviews of Evanstonians who lived through parts of the oil and gas boom and bust in the 1970s and 1980s,” Opsal says. “They are furthering my research agenda that focuses on ways carceral economies come to replace natural resource based ones.”

Dr. Opsal will also work with residents in Burlington and Las Animas, two rural Colorado communities in different stages of prison development, to expand her understanding of how rural communities are impacted when prisons want to or do come to town. Her research findings will be shared in professional/academic journals and, hopefully, a book. To further CSU’s land-grant mission of engaging with communities near and far, she is offering her interviews to local libraries’ oral history collections.

“We collect as many stories as we can from as many people as we can, and then we examine them for themes in order to understand an issue deeply,” Opsal says. “Qualitative research is important because people’s own understanding of their lives is central to understanding the answer to any kind of research question we explore.”

Amidst this tremendous amount of conflict, Opsal says one thing is very clear – the people who live in Evanston all want what’s best for their community. Residents define “what’s best” differently and have not come to a consensus on what or how to get there. For now, the private company has gone elsewhere.

Research, outreach and engagement like Opsal’s can help explore wicked problems such as small town economies by genuinely involving the people who are affected the most, identifying common ground, creating space for connections, and helping communities collectively work toward creative solutions.

“What I tell students is that truly there is not a greater privilege than sitting down at somebody’s kitchen table who you don’t know and having them share personal details about their lives, about their perspective,” Opsal says. “Residents’ willingness to share is central to answering my research questions, and what I learn from them is illuminating.”