Although the evidence of ghost towns proves that they exist (or have existed) throughout the country, most Americans invariably associate them with the frontier West: the High Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada; the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonoran Deserts. We also customarily associate the emergence of ghost towns with mining, certainly more than any other industry or economic engine. The discovery of a valuable mineral typically prompted a tremendous rush to an otherwise sparsely populated area (which characterizes most of the Western US to this day). The multiplier effect inevitably spurred the attendant businesses to serve the mine workers, sometimes galvanizing a settlement’s growth into a proper town, with a bank, a hotel, a municipal building, maybe even an opera house. Then, when it became obvious that the workers had exhausted the supply of this lucrative mined resource, the highly non-diversified settlement’s reason for being collapsed completely. Within years (or sometimes merely months) a settlement with populations in the three, four, or sometimes even five digits could dwindle to nearly nothing. A handful of ghost towns scattered throughout the country have earned a second lease on life: after decades of near or complete abandonment, various agents (sometimes at the behest of the State itself) have resuscitated the town’s surviving structures to a sufficient degree to attract the interest of the general public, elevating the desolate site into a tourist attraction. Places like Rhyolite, Nevada, Bodie, California, Virginia City, Montana, and Silver City, Idaho retain a human presence primarily because they gratify curiosity seekers, and the vast majority of ghost towns that have earned any real mystique are in the western half of the US.
Grants, New Mexico, the focal point of this article, is not in any respects a ghost town, and to mention this community eighty miles west of Albuquerque in the same breath as the aforementioned municipalities is possibly an insult to Grants’ 9,000 inhabitants. I don’t intend to denigrate the people of Grants, but I still find it justifiable to mention ghost towns because Grants grew around a single industry—one which is largely irrelevant in 2021, nearly 150 years after its founding. First a railroad junction accommodating local logging (named after three brothers with the last name of Grant, hence the plural -s), then an agrarian region during the Great Depression, and finally the epicenter of uranium mining during the middle of the 20th century, Grants has experienced the sort of herky-jerky growth patterns one might expect of a frontier town out west. With the uranium ore reserves largely depleted by the mid 1980s, Grants had little industry to sustain it beyond public administration; incidentally, its role as the county seat did not transpire until 1981, when the State of New Mexico carved Cibola County out of Valencia County, the latter of which survives as a much smaller political unit just to the east of Cibola. Presiding over a subunit comprising 4,500 square miles (almost as big as Connecticut) and about 27,000 people, Grants has retained a centrality despite the loss of many of its biggest private employers. Perched on the edge of the CIbola National Forest, Grants offers numerous opportunities for hiking amidst its beautiful natural landscapes.
The photo below, atop a nearby mesa, depicts Grants sprawled out to left-hand margin.
But Grants is hardly an epicenter of outdoor recreation in the same vein as many old Colorado mining downs, rescued from “ghost” status through the burgeoning ski, hiking, and mountain biking opportunities. But the rugged outdoors hasn’t enticed people to Grants. Wonderful as the backdrop might be, with the mighty Mount Taylor (the highest point in the Cibola National Forest) just fifteen miles away, Grants perseveres through a different industry.
Yes, it’s the prison industry.
Within a three-mile radius from the absolute center of Grants are the following: Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center (seen in the above photo), the Western New Mexico Corrections Facility, the Cibola County Correctional Center (in the neighboring town of Milan), the Juvenile Probation-Parole Office (District 13B), and the Cibola County Criminal Justice Complex (which houses the county sheriff’s department). The town is a hub for the prison industry. Here’s a map clearly revealing three of the aforementioned facilities (albeit under slightly different names); I have drawn in the remaining two locations.
The presence of the final facility on this list—the Criminal Justice Complex, indicated by the purple star on the map—should come as no surprise.
Grants is, after all, the seat of government to Cibola County, and most criminal courts in rural or lightly populated counties are clearly situated in the county’s most central and accessible municipality, which, generally speaking, is Grants. The Criminal Justice Complex’s austere, windowless façade almost certainly indicates that it hosts the county jail, for short-term incarceration prior to sentencing (a subject I touched upon many years ago). It unequivocally hosts the County Magistrate Court. But it’s a bit surprising how devoid of cars is it is on a Tuesday afternoon this past September; perhaps the majority of administrative functions could take place remotely and off-site, due to coronavirus restrictions.
But with fewer than a half-dozen cars parked out front, the Criminal Justice Complex almost appears abandoned. I didn’t get a photo of the Juvenile Probation-District 13B Parole Office (indicated by the orange star), but its presence in the county seat is equally unsurprising. Juvenile justice is usually a county function.
The same cannot be said about the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center (NNMCC), less than a mile away.
The lot out front is packed with civilian vehicles. As should come as no surprise, correctional centers such as this are a major employer, which no doubt explains their prevailing tendency to appear in economically distressed towns that have lost their prior industry. It didn’t have to locate in Grants, or Cibola County for that matter. But the State Department of Corrections probably faced considerably less opposition than if it had situated a burgeoning prison industry in an affluent neighborhood near Albuquerque or Santa Fe. The facility opened in 1989 as a women’s prison, but in 2015, the Department of Corrections declared its intent to relocate all female prisoners, most of them to the Western New Mexico Corrections Facility just a mile to the north, due to overcrowding caused by a higher-than-anticipated growth in demand for prison facilities for women. Meanwhile, the Cibola County Correction Center in neighboring Milan shifted its role about the same time, from housing minimum-security state prisoners to a Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) supported detention facility for foreign nationals in the country illegally. Thus, even though the Cibola County Correction Center’s name suggests a county function, its role is ultimately federal in nature. All of these relocations reinforce the local prison industry. And with each of these facilities serving a discrete role, the prison industry in Grants is unequivocally diversified.
Returning the NNMCC building in the photo, it shares one other feature with the Cibola County Correction Center. Take a look at this sign:
A private company called CoreCivic operates these two facilities. I’m not prepared to wade into the fraught politics of the private prison industry, a whole separate consideration in of itself. Suffice it to say that CoreCivic changed its name and brand from the previous Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a name which served as a lightning rod for all the faults that advocates of prison reform find in the very nature of privately operated prisons. But Cibola County is unlikely to part ways with CoreCivic any time soon; the reason is manifest at NNMCC through yet another roadside sign.
The wages and benefits are lucrative for this region, offering wages competitive with the uranium mining jobs of yesteryear. Beyond the prison industry, the best paying jobs in Grants most likely belong to the health care sector; Cibola General Hospital serves the vast expanses of rural Cibola County, including the many Native American pueblos in the region. Beyond this hospital, I don’t believe I’m going out on much of limb to assert that the largest employer in Grants is most likely the local Walmart Supercenter. In other words, outside of a few specialized service jobs or some very minor manufacturers, the majority of employment in Grants comes from retail and supportive businesses that pay little more than minimum wage. By comparison, a corrections job with a salary approaching $33K is absolutely middle class; the 2019 estimate median income for workers in Grants is approximately $35K. Any job paying close to the median that does not explicitly require core training is a boon for Grants. And while I’m not sure that $16.50 an hour is a better wage than at the state-run prisons in the area, we can almost guarantee that it isn’t worse, and that a market-driven prison operator will be forced to tweak its expenses so that it offers a competitive salary. And it will do so much more quickly and nimbly than a county, state, or federally operated prison. It has to, or another private operator will out-compete it.
The amount of work and research needed to dredge the information in this article on the Cibola County prison industry was considerable, all in service of a fairly obvious analysis. The very names of the prison facilities in and around Grants were difficult to ascertain. I’m not certain if this is predicated upon the need for secrecy or if the prison industry is in such a state of flux that it’s been difficult for me to lock anything in. Regardless, I think it’s tough to underestimate just how dependent communities such as Grants must be in attracting what more affluent corners of the country would consider an unsavory industry. In 1980, Grants was a uranium mining town. Forty years later, it is a hub for government services; incarceration is just one of many, but it’s the largest and most lucrative. For those citizens of Grants with a genuine investment in fortifying their hometown’s future, the emergence of the prison industry has been an economic godsend they are unlikely to relinquish voluntarily any time soon. Simply put, Grants would be much worse without it. And all the evidence they need is the settlement of Anaconda, a much smaller community of around 100 homes, just ten miles north of Grants, which served yet another uranium mine from the early 1950s until about 1982. Then, as indicated earlier, the depletion of the mines prompted all the uranium ore processing to close. Today, there’s basically no evidence that a village ever existed with the name of Anaconda. It’s not even a ghost town.