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Objectives. Despite the interest that social scientists have displayed in the rising rate of incarceration, little attention has been devoted to understanding its consequences for local areas. This is an important omission because prison construction has become a component of state and local economic development schemes. Indeed, there is a widespread belief that prison construction provides significant economic benefits to local areas.

Methods. We analyze data on all existing and new prisons in the United States since 1960 and examine the impact of these prisons on the pace of growth (as measured by public, private, and total employment growth) in U.S. counties from 1969 to 1994. To our knowledge, our study is the first comprehensive and longitudinal assessment of the impact of prison construction on local areas.

Results. We find no evidence that prison expansion has stimulated economic growth. In fact, we provide evidence that prison construction has impeded economic growth in rural counties that have been growing at a slow pace.

Conclusion. Despite sharp ideological and intellectual differences, the critics and the advocates of the prison construction boom share the assumption that prisons can contribute to local growth, especially in hard-pressed local areas. This belief flies in the face of mounting evidence that state and local initiatives rarely have a significant impact on growth; this belief is also contradicted by our analyses.