John Major Eason delivers address at 2019 George M. Beal Lectureship

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John Major Eason giv
Photo by Bob Elbert.

The Department of Sociology’s 2019 George M. Beal Distinguished Lectureship in Rural Sociology was held Oct. 29 and featured invited speaker John Major Eason, associate professor in the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. Eason holds a master’s in public policy from the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago.

Rural prison boom is lecture topic

Eason presented “In Our Backyards: How the Prison Boom Transformed Rural America,” which he delivered to a packed house of students, faculty and staff in the Memorial Union Sun Room. His talk primarily focused on research he uncovered for his book, “Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghettos and Prison Proliferation,” which examines the prison boom in rural America and the impact prisons have on economic development, poverty and race. He specifically analyzed the town of Forrest City, Arkansas, where a new federal prison was built in 1997.

Surprising statistics

Eason said that since 1970, 70% of federal prisons have been built in rural communities like Forrest City at a cost of around $30 billion. He told attendees that he assumed those statistics would shine a negative light on prison building in towns struggling with poverty, but he found the opposite to be true.

“Contrary to popular belief, towns with higher poverty and higher black and Latinx populations are more likely to build prisons,” Eason said. “This is not what was commonly thought. The thought was prisons are being built in white, wealthier towns.”

Eason discovered that small-town leaders — no matter their ethnicity or financial status — consider prisons a better choice to revitalize their communities than some other industries.

“Black leaders in Forrest City were unified with white leaders,” Eason said. “Prisons become the best of the worst options available for towns like Forrest City.”

Eason also said that his research uncovered the fact that the prison boom in rural America cannot be attributed to one political party or the other.

“It’s purple. It’s blue and red, both Republicans and Democrats,” he said.

Halting the prison boom

Eason cited research that says the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. He argued that mass incarceration would be impossible without the prison boom in rural America and suggested that the creation of 2 million jobs could help reverse high incarceration rates. He admitted, however, that this shift would be difficult.

“It takes a lot of work to build this many prisons, and it’s going to take a lot of work to change the system,” Eason said.

Lecture honors George M. Beal

The George M. Beal Lectureship in Rural Sociology was created in 2014 to celebrate and honor the life of George M. Beal, emeritus professor and former chair of the Department of Sociology. The intent of the lectureship is two-fold: to recognize and honor Professor Beal’s life-long contributions to the creation and prominence of Iowa State’s Department of Sociology, and to extend his legacy by enhancing teaching, research and extension programs in rural sociology at Iowa State.