Prisons and Rural Economies: Do Prisons Generate Economic Development Benefits to Host Counties?

Faculty: Jan Blustein and Dick Netzer
Team: Diana Beck, Shawn Campbell, Kuang Chiang, Alexander Ely, Omar Semidey
Year: 2004
The confluence of rural economic decline and a booming prison population led to a growth industry for prison construction in the 1980s. In the past 20 years, roughly 1,000 new prisons and jails have been built in the United States. Since 1980, approximately 350 rural counties have acquired new prisons, resulting in more than half of rural counties adding prison work to its available employment mix. Prior to the “prison boom” in the 1980s, 62 percent of the prison population was housed in facilities in metropolitan areas of more than 50,000 people. By the late 1990s, 69 percent of inmates were located in non-metro areas of fewer than 10,000 residents. The economic benefits of prison building in rural areas often seems selfevident to elected officials and their rural constituents. Prisons promise to bring relatively high-paying jobs to communities in decline. Across rural counties in the United States, prison building as economic development has become stated policy. Whether such perceived benefits actually accrue to host counties is the empirical question addressed by the current study.