Incarceration facilities don’t make for sound rural development

The belief that placing incarceration facilities in rural areas stimulates local rural economies is a myth that was developed and perpetuated during the prison boom of the 1980s-1990s. Quantitative and demographic studies show that prison hosting, and by extension immigration detention center hosing, is a strain on local economies. All across the US, prison hosting raises unemployment in small towns and rural communities.

The idea that rural prison building is a viable rural development tool was forwarded in Bureau of Justice Statistics literature from the 1990’s.1 Though unsupported by evidence, it was (and by many still is) commonly assumed that for rural small towns hosting prisons or detention centers will bring a plethora of new jobs, result in new payroll taxes, and generally stimulate the local economy. These beliefs form key reasons why rural communities, including those in New Mexico, often go to great lengths, and sometimes into great debt, to attract detention centers.2

Whether prisons, and by extension detention centers, stimulate small rural communities is a question that is empirical and testable. Numerous local case studies and regional surveys have examined this very question through well-designed, empirically rigorous, and statistically controlled investigations. For example:

  • King et al. (2003) examined 25 years of economic data statistically comparing rural prison hosting to non-prison hosting counties in New York.3
  • Huling (2003) synthesized and summarized existing literature on prison placement including some unpublished conference papers.4
  • Besser and Hanson (2004) looked at all new prison towns between 1990-2000 statistically comparing similar prison and non-prison hosting communities in terms of standard economic indicators.5
  • In one of the more thorough case studies, Gilmore (2007) examined all new prisons in California.6
  • Holley (2008) examined all non-metro prisons built during the 1980s and 1990s statistically comparing prison hosting counties with similar non-hosting communities in terms of standard economic indicators.7
  • Hooks et al. (2010) examined all existing and new prisons in the US since 1960 looking at the impacts on employment outcomes from 1976-2004.8
  • Meagher and Thompson (2016) further synthesized literature on rural prison placement and economic outcomes. There are additional studies, but these are the ones I’ve personally read and reviewed in the past few weeks. I’m continuing to collect literature on the subject.9

Standard economic and demographic indicators consistently show that small rural towns hosting new prisons experienced more unemployment, greater poverty, and less growth than similar small rural towns that did not host prisons. After controlling for population, economic indicators, and region, at the end of the decade (2000) when compared to non-prison towns, new prison towns on average had lower median value of housing, fewer housing units, lower household wages, fewer non-agricultural jobs, and fewer youth residents.

These results may seem unexpected until one examines the details. The reason for these trends is that while new jobs are created by prisons, whether it be construction, corrections, or custodial roles, local residents in the hosting community typically do not fill those positions. The positions are generally filled by residents of the nearest large town or metro area; prison workers commute long distances to rural prisons. Visiting the employee parking lot at OCPC on any given day reveals that nearly all of the cars bear Texas plates. This is because, consistent with the pattern identified in numerous other case studies, most of the employees do not come from the local rural community they commute from the nearby urban center, which in the case of OCPC is El Paso.

In addition to the pattern just described, many of the custodial jobs at ICE detention centers are filled by incarcerated workers who make a dollar a day. Rather than protecting US workers, which is supposed to be one of the reasons for immigration enforcement, ICE encourages its private prison contractors to use captive low paid (at $1 per day) migrant labor rather than hiring local workers to do the job. Immigration detention facilities are nearly completely self-contained, they have virtually no economic multiplying factors articulating with the local community. The assumption that prisons are viable economic development strategies for small rural towns is deeply entrenched and confirmed by unquestioned repetition; this assumption has been carefully tested by well-designed research and resoundingly found false—evidence shows that prison hosting strains local economies.

Please sign on in support of HB624 the Rubio-Maestas Immigration Detention Facilities Act.

  1. Ryan S King, Marc Mauer, and Tracy Huling, “Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America” (Washington D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 2003), 1, sentencing project-big prison, small towns-2003.pdf.
  2. Tracy Huling, “Building a Prison Economy in Rural America,” in Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, ed. Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind (New York: New Press, 2003), 221–39.
  3. King, Ryan S, Marc Mauer, and Tracy Huling. 2003. “Big Prisons, Small Towns: Prison Economics in Rural America.” Washington D.C.: The Sentencing Project. sentencing project-big prison, small towns-2003.pdf.
  4. Huling, Tracy. 2003. “Building a Prison Economy in Rural America.” In Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, edited by Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, 221–39. New York: New Press.
  5. Besser, Terry L., and Margaret M. Hanson. 2004. “Development of Last Resort: The Impact of New State Prisons on Small Town Economies in the United States.” Journal of the Community Development Society 35 (2): 1–16.
  6. Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. American Crossroads 21. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  7. Holley, William T. 2008. “Assessing the Impact of Prison Siting On Rural Economic Development.” Doctoral Dissertation, Fairfax, VA: Gorge Mason University.
  8. Hooks, Gregory, Clayton Mosher, Shaun Genter, Thomas Rotolo, and Linda Lobao. 2010. “Revisiting the Impact of Prison Building on Job Growth: Education, Incarceration, and County-Level Employment,.” Social Science Quarterly 91 (1): 228–44.
  9. Meagher, Tom, and Christie Thompson. 2016. “So You Think a New Prison Will Save Your Town?” The Marshall Project. June 15, 2016.