PROJECTReducing Prisons in Rural Communities of Color

Building evidence on the prison boom and advancing economic development across rural communities

photo of exterior of a prison
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  • How the Prison Boom Led to the Prison Town Phenomenon

    In 1970, there were 525 prisons in the US. Over the next three decades, nearly 1,100 new facilities were constructed—more than half of them in rural, predominantly Black and Latinx communities with high poverty, few educational opportunities, and limited access to capital and other resources. Today, 1,668 public and private prisons house about 1.3 million people.

    Many of the places where America’s prisons were built were experiencing economic decline. Carceral facilities have helped revitalize these communities—often dubbed “prison towns”—serving as a source of economic stability by providing stable jobs, tax relief, social connection, and increased revenue through state and federal funding. The presence of prisons can also stimulate other sectors of the prison towns’ economies, such as construction, retail, and services catering to prison staff and visitors.

    What remains unclear is whether this approach to economic development is sustainable and what the broader implications are for the overall well-being of the communities that host prisons.

    Reducing Prisons in Rural Communities of Color

    Urban’s Reducing Prisons in Rural Communities of Color project aims to better understand the prison boom, how it affects communities, and what it would take to responsibly curb demand for prisons and decrease their numbers. By understanding the prison construction boom and prioritizing the needs of communities impacted by closing them, decisionmakers and advocates can both reduce mass incarceration and address the adverse economic outcomes of prison closures.

    Developed through Urban’s Equity Scholars Program, the research informs Unlocking Futures, an independent policy initiative, employing data and evidence-based strategies to guide communities in transitioning away from dependency on prisons toward sustainable economic development. Led by Urban Institute nonresident fellow and Brown University associate professor John M. Eason, Unlocking Futures emerged from the National Science Foundation–supported Prison Proliferation Project, which collects extensive data on US prisons, including their locations, histories, and impacts on local economies, to lay bare the ripple effects of America’s prison boom.

    Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
    Policy Centers Justice Policy Center