Big House on the Prairie is a disappointing book on multiple levels, but still has some insights to offer. The most immediately apparent shortcoming of the book is that it discusses neither the “Big House” nor the “Prairie,” rendering the title a clever but vacuous bit of word play. Unfortunately, the playfulness of its title is the only fun the book has or allows; a second major problem with the book is its clinical and self-serious tone of humorlessness, which contrasts markedly with the sloppiness of the prose throughout. On a less cosmetic level, the book’s main argumentative thrust centers on the wrong level of analysis to convince readers of author John M. Eason’s bold claims regarding prison proliferation and mass incarceration.

The primary thesis of Big House on the Prairie is that the rise of the rural ghetto (more on what that term means below) is a crucial but forgotten component of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) that complicates the prevailing sociological paradigm which argues that the PIC exploits urban minority communities for the benefit of whites, especially rural whites. On the broadest level, the evidence provided in the book, collected through a multi-year research project in the Mississippi Delta community of Forrest City, Arkansas, supports this claim. But the issues with the argument come with the application of greater scrutiny; ultimately, Eason is able to “complicate” the standard paradigm by showing that prisons are constructed in rural micropolitan communities—that is sociology-speak for “small town”—with majority racial-minority populations, which means that the immediate, small-scale economic benefits of prison construction primarily go to people of color. This revelation, however, does nothing to dispel the prevailing notion that the majority of benefits of the PIC do indeed go to powerful white men. In other words, Eason’s stentorian claims of changing the way we think about prisons are not matched by his comparatively feeble conclusions.

While the arguments posited in Big House on the Prairie center on the PIC, the book is really about Forrest City rather than prisons. Eason is at his best when discussing the development of the rural ghetto as a social phenomenon. The rural ghetto is an entrapping, racially-biased system that keeps minority populations in rural areas from enjoying the social mobility of non-ghetto dwellers. The rise of the rural ghetto, as seen in Forrest City, has been concurrent with the proliferation of prisons. Rural ghetto towns, stigmatized by the negative consequences of being ghetto towns, demand prisons be built within them as the least-bad form of state-sponsored economic development (for whatever reason, Eason avoids using the established terminology for this phenomenon: “the school-to-prison pipeline”). Eason also finds that such development schemes are successful, at least in the short-term, in slowing the rate of economic decline in poor rural micropolitan areas, even if they fail to provide economic growth.

The book is nearly pathological in avoiding discussing prisons themselves, both the history of incarceration in the United States and the specific prison nominally under scrutiny, the Forrest City Federal Correctional Facility (FCFCF). Any reader steeped in the history of prisons and policing—the penitentiary riots of the ‘70s, the crack epidemic of the ‘80s, “broken windows” in the ‘90s and the increasing militarization of police today—would see Eason’s explanation of prison demand as overly simplistic. While the purpose of the book is to concentrate on the dynamics of host communities’ requests for prisons to be built, divorcing the small-scale from the larger story of the expansion of the need for prisons waters down his argument. Another weak point is that the FCFCF as a physical structure and actually operating prison facility is always only peripheral to the book; what is the prison like and what does it mean for the people of Forrest City on a physical level, as an edifice in the town? From Eason’s account, it seems he only ventured to the FCFCF one time, where he crashed a meeting and behaved so badly as to nearly be arrested himself. The prison’s absence from the book is a gaping one.

Big House on the Prairie has its strong points. The third chapter, on the rise of the rural ghetto, is an excellent analysis of the degradation of micropolitan communities in the rural south. This is a major social issue for the U.S. today, even if Eason’s subsequent argument that the rural ghetto is the true site of racial violence in the country is obviously hyperbolic. Another vital claim of the book is the idea that while many population centers reject prisons on the NIMBY—Not In My BackYard—principle, in rural ghetto areas the response to prison placement is instead, “Have you seen my backyard?” In other words, prisons are requested by these towns because they do not have any prestige or value to protect. These are worthwhile claims, but for the book they are marshalled in the service of a too-ambitious argument that stretches them past their breaking points.

Big House on the Prairie expresses several worthy claims and good evidence, but problems including inelegant prose and the overriding argument being far too expansive drag the book down.

  • The Last Million: by David Nasaw

    The Last Million details one of the gravest humanitarian catastrophes that unfolded within…
  • The Searcher: by Tana French

    The Searcher is a recognizable and straightforward exercise in genre, but it is also an ex…
  • Hearts and Bones

    Fortunately, someone somewhere is still funding these uplifting tales of the goodness of o…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Last Million: by David Nasaw

The Last Million details one of the gravest humanitarian catastrophes that unfolded within…