Urban Wire Curbing Rural Prison Demand and Responsibly Closing Prisons
Susan Nembhard, Travis Reginal, John M. Eason
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photo of prison

During America’s prison boom, the country built more than 1,000 new prisons in a span of 30 years. While such growth boosted rural economies, the era also created a perverse incentive to mass incarcerate more Americans.

But since 2000, the US has closed more prisons than it’s opened. Nearly 80 percent of those closures happened in urban communities, which are equipped to withstand the economic fallout of closures due to their already diversified economies.

As states close prisons in rural communities, the question becomes, how can rural communities survive the economic loss and build resilient economic futures? With a vision and plan to address the opportunities and challenges of closing prisons in towns, rural communities can thrive beyond the confines of mass incarceration.

Why do communities fight prison closures?

When prisons close in rural places, the communities are often left to fend for themselves. For example, Blythe, California, is a town of more than 15,000 where most residents and people working in the local prison are Black or Latine. When Blythe community members discovered attempts to close the prison, they reached out to the organizers and requested a delay to allow time for them to find viable industries for new jobs. 

Shutting down the prison would mean losing 800 jobs, leaving employees without a way to make a living and support their families. Such a dramatic loss of jobs makes it imperative for prison closure advocates to pair their advocacy with an understanding of strategies to maintain the stability of rural communities.

Replacing prisons with other economic development options

Rural towns often find prisons attractive because of their potential for job creation. However, alternatives like green energy, agriculture, and tourism hold potential.

Industries like green energy and agriculture, which thrive on rural towns’ ample space, offer promising alternative employment opportunities. The US Department of Energy highlights that many green energy jobs are aimed at creating economic prospects, especially for communities historically overlooked, which could benefit rural communities of color.

Clean energy grant programs like President Biden’s $11 billion Justice40 Initiative offer a path to replace prisons with these types of responsible, sustainable opportunities. These initiatives align well with the Build Back Better and Green New Deal programs, emphasizing the expansion of green energy jobs at both state and national levels. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind offer a golden opportunity for rural places to diversify their economic options.

Tourism also presents a viable solution to mitigate the economic effects of prison closures. By investing in tourism development, rural towns can enhance their economies and create jobs through attractions that draw tourists.

The first steps to responsibly closing prisons

Build evidence: To ensure closures are strategic, effective, and responsible, policymakers and advocates should follow the evidence. Political, social, and economic analyses that compare places that have closed prisons with those that have maintained theirs and examine the difference in outcomes should guide subsequent steps.

Engage communities: Engaging residents in every step of the process is critical to ensuring they have a voice in envisioning alternative economic landscapes. This is especially important to ensuring rural communities of color aren’t left out. When policymakers engage the community and incorporate their ideas, they will pave the way for a more inclusive and diversified economic foundation.

For too long, rural communities have been cornered into choosing prisons as a last-resort economic strategy. Rural communities can flourish beyond the shadow of mass incarceration when we can describe a sharp vision for communities without prisons and adopt a strategic approach that navigates both the opportunities and challenges this change presents.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Crime and justice analytics Economic well-being Infrastructure Job opportunities Mass incarceration Policing and community safety Rural people and places
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
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