Prison System in America

III. Prison Hosting in the 21st Century

In the past, prisons have been viewed as undesirable, and communities have traditionally lobbied against the placement of correctional facilities in their midst. Such institutions were regularly a focus of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and LULU (Locally Unwanted Land Uses) literatures, along with community mental health centers, mental institutions, free health and methadone clinics, homeless shelters, and other agencies or institutions that residents viewed with concern and even fear.

Such concerns have faded as communities now lobby fiercely for the opportunity to host prisons. Particularly for counties and communities that have fallen on hard economic times, a new prison offers the prospect of a new industry, new jobs, and a potential economic catalyst that will spark community growth and development. Most new prisons in the past 20 years have been built in rural communities characterized by high unemployment and low wages, as local development agencies and authorities are lobbied by correctional firms and interests with the promise of higher wages, job opportunities, and so-called “multiplier effects” that are presumed to enhance quality of life for local residents (Wood & Dunaway, 2003).

Over 1,000 new correctional facilities were built in the United States in the last two decades of the 20th century— most in poor rural communities. Between 1980 and 2003, over 350 rural counties built prisons, and some counties boasted several. Nearly 250 prisons opened in 212 of the nation’s 2,290 rural counties in the 10-year period between 1991 and 2001 alone (Beale, 2001). In short, one (or more) prison(s) opened in approximately 10% of all rural counties in the United States in just those 10 years. Currently, nearly 60% of prisoners residing in prisons live in facilities built since 1980 in rural areas, and the average of 25 new rural prisons opening each year in the 1990s (in 1998, a total of 38 new rural prisons opened, the peak year for new rural prisons) is a significant departure from a yearly mean of 16 in the 1980s and 4 in the 1970s.

Correctional facilities are particularly attractive to local legislators and development authorities who seek to “bring home the bacon” to their constituents and hopefully promote economic development in their communities. In addition to the hope that jobs will be created during construction as well as service and supply jobs once the facility is in operation, counties typically charge the state for each inmate/day that a state inmate is housed at the county-level facility. Further, rural counties use minimum-security inmates for municipal and public works. For many rural counties, the majority of municipal and public work is conducted by state inmate road crews. The expense of local municipal services (trash and debris removal, construction work, road maintenance, etc.) is significant, and can be offset by requiring that inmates perform these services as part of their sentence—at no cost to the county. Thus, counties anticipate several payoffs; a new facility may serve as an economic catalyst, counties charge the state to house inmates, and counties use inmates to perform municipal services. In addition to publicly funded facilities, private prisons are increasingly likely to be located in economically distressed rural areas. Prison expansion has spawned a new and powerful coalition of vested interests with stakes in keeping prisons full and building more of them. The result has been a financial and political bazaar with prisoners as the prize.

Any new prison is likely to remain operating in place for at least 50 years, which appeals to communities as a secure source of employment. But there is little evidence that prison hosting stimulates economic development at the local level (Herival & Wright, 2007). Several national and regional studies have demonstrated that rural counties that host prisons typically show no positive benefits in per capita income or reduced unemployment compared to nonprison areas. Why is this the case?

While prisons create jobs, they don’t usually go to people in those communities, who don’t have the skills or civil service rating to become a correctional officer. And in rural communities, people are used to commuting long distances to work, so guards at nearby prisons may choose to transfer to the new ones. Also, aggressive pursuit of new prisons can create an imbalance in a county’s economic development strategy. Energies devoted to prison lobbying can detract from other pursuits that might create more jobs. In addition, there is a stigma attached to becoming viewed as a prison town. How many people think of a family trip to Attica as a summer vacation option?

The prison-building binge may have slowed in recent years, but given the projected increases in national prison populations, other states may soon follow the lead of California, which recently established a plan to add another 53,000 prison, jail, and juvenile detention beds for an estimated cost of $7.9 billion. Though current economic woes have caused federal and state governments to reduce their investments in punishment, the expected future increase in the number of inmates, correctional institutions, and costs associated with the decades-long expansion has enough momentum to carry well into the mid-21st century.

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