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Understanding the effects of the U.S. prison boom on rural communities

The rate of imprisonment in the United States is higher than that of any other developed nation, with communities of color being disproportionately affected. Although racial minorities are overrepresented among the population of prisoners, they are also overrepresented among the population of corrections officers, and prisons are disproportionately built in rural areas, particularly those with larger African American and Latino communities. This article examines prison proliferation in the United States, particularly during the prison boom period of 1970 through 2010, when the number of U.S. prisons tripled. In particular, it explores the consequences, both positive and negative, of prison-building on rural communities.


  • The Prison Proliferation Project gathered, for the first time, accurate data on all U.S. prisons, yielding important new insights.
  • Prison-building can both help and hurt rural communities.
  • Towns that gained a prison during the early part of the prison boom experienced positive economic effects such as increases in median home value and median family income; however, these effects did not persist over the longer term.
  • Prison-building may have played a key role in slowing economic decline during the 1980s for towns that got prisons early on.


Incarceration, Inequality & Mobility, Justice System, Place, Racial/Ethnic Inequality, Spatial Mismatch


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