Yes in My Backyard
How Eden learned to stop worrying and love its private prison.
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A CITY OF 2,561 PEOPLE 43 miles east of San Angelo, Eden has five established churches, three sit-down restaurants that all serve Tex-Mex, two motels, a grocery store, a hospital, a nine-hole golf course, and several exotic-game ranches. It’s a place of great natural beauty—more or less the spot where the Hill Country gives way to West Texas—that bills itself “The Garden in the Center of Texas” and claims Air Force pioneer General Ira Eaker as its favorite son. Like most places, Eden has an annual celebration, in this case Fall Fest (September 2426 this year), which features a parade, a Saturday night dance, and the Adam’s Rib and Eve’s Seduction barbecue and dessert contest. And, oh, yeah, at the eastern edge of town, flanked by rows of shiny razor wire, there’s a private federal prison.
If you’ve taken U.S. 87 heading west, you know the place I mean, on the right side of the road just as the speed limit slows to 45. An all-male minimum-security facility for illegal aliens serving out criminal sentences before their deportation, the Eden Detention Center was built in 1985. It was later purchased by the city and is now owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). With its in-ground granite sign and smattering of trees and flowers, the EDC looked like your average office park campus until recently, when tightened federal regulations put the malignant fencing front and center. Now as then, the building’s trim facade does not suggest its true size: more than 1,300 beds, most of which are full. In other words, at least half the citizens of Eden aren’t citizens at all.
This seemingly incongruous state of affairs is actually routine in the United States, especially in Texas, which put at least seventy prison facilities into rural communities during the nineties. Prisoners are included in the U.S. Census, and of the 21 counties in the U.S. that have more than 21 percent of their population behind bars, 10 are in our state. Struggling small towns have traditionally been used as dumping grounds for businesses that no one wants to live with, like nuclear power plants or hog farms. But these days, with family agriculture giving way to corporate farming and ranches to ranchettes, correctional facilities are to small towns what casinos are to reservations. Local leaders actually campaign to get their burg a prison, wooing the necessary government agencies and companies with incentive-laden bids just like Dallas would for Lockheed Martin. Some of these facilities don’t work out, which tends to hurt the towns a lot more than the companies, but Eden’s surely has. To say the prison doesn’t creep the locals out would be an understatement. They’re downright thankful for the place.
“It’s what keeps our restaurants going, keeps our grocery store going—keeps us alive, really,” says Mark Bethune, the president of the chamber of commerce. “I’d say a good number of people in my church owe their livelihood to the detention center, directly or indirectly. So I guess I do as well, don’t I?”
The detention center came to be as part of a campaign sparked by then-mayor Jim Schumann, who recognized the need to revitalize a city in slow decline. In 1985, a year after his election, he put a sign up in the square: “For Sale. City of Eden. Pop. 1166.” A picture of it made the front page of the San Angelo Standard-Times, then countless other papers via the Associated Press. Schumann had made his point.
He’d made the same pitch when he’d contacted contractor Roy Burnes and suggested that Eden could open its arms to the detention center that Brady, thirty miles to the east and five times as large, had shot down, thanks to vocal public opposition. “A lot of people don’t want to admit it, but this town is dying,” Schumann said at the council meeting to consider the proposal. According to Wade Clifton, then an Austin-based consultant and now the chairman and CEO of First State Bank in nearby Paint Rock, that was more than abstract speculation. “The projections that I had seen before the detention center happened were that Eden would be smaller than Paint Rock,” he says. (Paint Rock’s population is three hundred.)
Still, “Let’s put in a prison!” is not much of a rallying cry. The town was split, with three hundred to four hundred people signing petitions on both sides. Opponents had concerns about, as one letter writer to the mayor put it, “welcoming the criminal element to our midst.” Other critics wondered if the federal government would really fill two hundred beds (the detention center’s original size). On the other side, city councilwoman Myrtle Hall shed public tears contemplating Eden’s shaky economic future, while an unsigned article in the local Eden Echo newspaper reassured the citizens, with perfect pre-PC nonchalance, that the facility would neither house dangerous felons nor be “an area roundup pen for wets.” Two months after the project was initially proposed, the council gave the go-ahead.
Now some of the same people who opposed the center work there. Others deny they were against it in the first place. A friend of Schumann’s who crossed the street to avoid him for three years later admitted, “It’s the best thing this town could ever have.” A facility that started out with 27 jobs and $7-an-hour wages now employs more than 250 people at a minimum wage of $11 an hour. “That’s a really good job in this part of the world,” says Clifton. “All the little farmers and ranchers, these guys that have three hundred and twenty acres, six hundred and forty acres—it’s not enough. But they can have a job at the detention center and continue farming and ranching before or after work.”
“I really, really enjoy working out there, and I never, ever feel afraid,” says Flo Perez, a 72-year-old retired Methodist minister who, as the EDC’s assistant chaplain, sees about two hundred prisoners at chapel every week. “There are certain things that go on that you wish didn’t go on, but my thinking is, as old as I am, if they want to look twice, that sounds good!” Perez lives with her daughter’s family just two doors down from where she works. Ask if they worry about escapees and they’ll give you what turns out to be the town’s stock answer: “Anybody who escapes isn’t gonna stick around.”
Eden’s city secretary, Rosa Schreiber, learned that firsthand on Christmas Day some ten years ago. She went out to her car the night before to bring in presents and left the keys behind. When her husband went out the next morning to make a cigarette run, there was no car for him to go in. Told two inmates had escaped, Schreiber reassured the sheriff’s office, “Oh, they’re not gonna get very far. I’ve got only a quarter of a tank of gas in there.” Then she remembered she had about $10 in loose change in the console (her car eventually turned up in Mexico).
It’s both obvious and ironic that many detention center inmates were at some point just hoping for a better economic life—which they now give to folks in Eden. And while the people on the outside may feel safe, the EDC has had two riots—one in 1996 and one in 2003. The private prison industry, and CCA specifically, has long been criticized by human rights organizations, both for alleged abuses and for creating a system where good business may not jibe with what’s best for the inmates. Because of increased immigration crackdowns dating back to 1996, that system has been booming. While Eden only houses criminals, some inmates in other facilities are guilty of nothing more than being illegal immigrants.
Now, you can’t put these issues directly on the backs of Eden’s people any more than you can hold a town accountable for the way Wal-Mart treats its employees. Besides, Eden’s success hasn’t been unqualified. Take away the inmates, and the population hasn’t really grown. Bread-and-butter businesses, like the pharmacy and the hardware store, still didn’t stay alive. The high school is big enough to keep the football team eleven-man, but how many kids in that school system sit around dreaming of a job with CCA?
“We lose young people,” acknowledges Maggie Farrington, the secretary treasurer at the chamber of commerce. “Some of them stay here, but they don’t become what they want to be. They may want to be a computer operator, a lab technician, an astronaut—so they’re gonna have to go somewhere else. And then maybe come back.”
That’s what Flo Perez’s daughter did. Estella Alba grew up in nearby Melvin—a town whose infrastructure disappeared, like Eden’s might have years ago—attended Angelo State, and lived with her husband in Dallas, Chicago, and El Paso before the age of the Internet and cell phones made it possible for them to consider small-town life. They now have their own trucking business and are happy to be in a place where their kids get more classroom attention and sing along to the Black Eyed Peas song “Where Is the Love” without having any idea what the lyrics “the Bloods and the Crips and the KKK” mean.
Eden’s chamber and local government know the prison isn’t enough. Creating more culture, business, and opportunities for younger generations will mean having to promote the community’s quality of life. Eden has begun working with the other towns in Concho County on a campaign to sell the region’s rural authenticity and natural attractions to tourists. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Concho County has all kinds of attractions—pictographs, wildlife, history, a nineteenth-century courthouse, Lake O.H. Ivie, and craftsmen—but hasn’t really tried to tell the world about them. “It’s killed a lot of communities to be the best-kept secret,” says Genora Young, who as Eden’s community development director is the city’s head cheerleader, marketer, and networker in the effort to move forward with its tourism initiative.
And how does a city as small as Eden finance such a thing? You guessed it: $13,750 of Young’s annual salary comes from the Spirit of Eden Fund, a charitable foundation set up by the city fathers when they sold the prison to CCA. No, you can’t put a bed-and-breakfast in the prison, but there just might be some bed-and-breakfasts in Eden soon because of it.