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The New Landscape of Imprisonment

Mapping America's Prison Expansion

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Document date: April 29, 2004
Released online: April 29, 2004

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).


Executive Summary

In recent decades, growth in the number of people in U.S. prisons has been the largest in history—the prison population increased by more than one million between 1980 and 2000. To accommodate this growth, corrections officials have pursued a variety of strategies, including greatly expanding the network of prisons. The number of state prison facilities increased from about 600 prisons in the mid-1970s to over 1,000 prisons by the year 2000. Because the Census Bureau counts prisoners where they are incarcerated in the decennial census, the locations of prisons may have significant implications for state and federal funding allocations, as well as political representation.

Despite this tremendous growth, the prison construction boom has received relatively little attention. It is remarkable that a public undertaking as far-reaching as the American prison expansion, which affects millions of incarcerated individuals, influences millions more family and community members, and consumes billions of public dollars, would receive so little empirical analysis and public scrutiny. This report contributes to the limited knowledge base by developing an empirical understanding of the geographic locations of prison facilities—and therefore prisoners—following this record-level expansion over the past two decades. Prison expansion is examined from national, state, and county-level perspectives, and in terms of the extent to which prisons were located in "metro" counties or "non-metro" counties. This report focuses on 10 states that experienced the largest growth in the number of prisons during the 1980s and 1990s.

Several themes emerge from the analyses presented in this report. First is the pervasiveness of prison growth. The prison construction boom of the last two decades was not concentrated in a few states or in certain regions of the country, but occurred in states across the country. Prison systems also expanded within states, as new prisons were more geographically dispersed. The share of counties in the 10 study states that were home to at least one prison increased from 13 percent of counties in 1979 to 31 percent of counties in 2000. In addition, the number of prisons increased significantly in both metro and non-metro counties, challenging the notion that prison expansion has primarily taken place in non-metro counties.

A second theme to emerge is that in a select number of smaller communities, prison expansion has significantly impacted the total population. In each of the 10 study states there were several counties where a notable share of the total population was incarcerated. Thirteen counties in the 10 study states had 20 percent or more of the resident population imprisoned in 2000. All 10 states had least five counties where 5 percent or more of the population was imprisoned. Not surprisingly, most of these counties, but not all, were non-metro counties. Analyses presented in this report show that the share of prisoners who resides in non-metro counties is greater than the share of the general population who resides in non-metro counties, and that this has been the case for at least the last two decades.

A third theme of this report is the mismatch between the places prisoners consider home and the places prisoners serve their time. A series of maps illustrates large disparities between the sentencing counties and the counties of imprisonment.

Issues related to prison expansion of the 1980s and 1990s are numerous and complex. We hope that this report 1) provides a better understanding of this expansion in terms of spatial distribution, 2) challenges some commonly held ideas about prison growth, and 3) highlights issues that deserve additional attention. Our primary goal, however, is to use empirical analyses to ground the debate surrounding prison expansion and to lay the foundation for future studies.


Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice


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