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'Prison Bust' Hits Rural and Urban U.S. Unevenly, New Study Shows

Prison closings and openings: 1970-2022

In the "prison bust" of the first two decades of this century, as America's prison complex began to shrink after an unprecedented boom from the 1970s through the 1990s, most prison closings have been concentrated in a handful of states — the same states that most enthusiastically built new prisons as an economic development boon to rural areas — a new study shows.

The authors of the paper "The Prison Bust: Declining Carceral Capacity in an Era of Mass Incarceration" tout their work as "the first comprehensive record of U.S. prison closures from 2000- 2022," one that slices the data down to the county level.

Overall, in the years 2000 to 2022 the U.S. eliminated 16% of its prisons, a drop of 9%, or nearly 129,000, in prison beds.

"Those states that were the most prolific prison builders during the prison boom and adopted formal policies using prisons as economic development tools have also closed the most prisons," the paper states. "Prison closures are largely concentrated in a handful of states. Nearly half of all prison closures have occurred in North Carolina, New York, Texas, Michigan, and Florida. Many states, on the other hand, have closed only a handful of prisons, and 17 have not closed any prisons at all."

The prison bust, however, does not follow the same pattern as the prison boom.

"Counties that closed prisons during the bust are disproportionately urban, educated, and wealthy relative to counties with prisons but no closures," the paper states. "This contrasts the geographical distribution of the boom where prisons were disproportionately sited in rural, economically disadvantaged communities."

Those choices of where to place prisons during the boom varied depending on states' strategies.

"While the increase in prison facilities was inevitable given rising incarceration rates nationwide, some states went out of their way to build more small prisons as opposed to fewer large prisons," the paper states. "This effectively 'spread the wealth' of the economic stimulus across more, often rural, economies."

Despite hopes of economic benefits to rural "prison towns," "the preponderance of research has failed to detect any substantial economic benefits from prison siting," the paper states. The authors do not speculate why rural communities have borne less of the burden in the prison bust.

The "spatial mismatch" of prison boom and bust, however, poses many policy questions that have yet to be addressed nationwide — including the politically sticky prospect of shutting down rural prisons that provide needed jobs even as their conditions or necessity deteriorate, as Illinois officials are grappling with currently.

"While closures to date have been relatively rare events, the growing pressure to reduce the scale of mass incarceration indicates that going forward, the answers to these questions will become increasingly important," the paper concludes.


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