The Justice Lab at UW-Madison focuses on ending racial, economic, and health disparities across the rural-urban interface.

Prison Proliferation Project

Many argue the war on drugs has driven mass incarceration—the dramatic expansion of the criminal justice system since 1970 witnessed by an annual incarceration rate greater than 2.3 million U.S. citizens. The impact of mass incarceration on continued racial and economic stratification in the US cannot be understated. With much less fanfare, the prison boom—the dramatic expansion from 511 prisons to 1663 in just over thirty years—developed alongside our historic rate of incarceration. Thus, many feel signs like the U.S. Senate overwhelming vote (85 to 15) on prison reform to close out 2018 signals a pivotal move in federal crime policy aimed at reducing incarceration, marking the end of the prison boom, and an era of particular racial oppression. 

Scholars of punishment have provided great insight into the causes and consequences of mass incarceration. While this body of research has made significant theoretical and empirical contributions it has been primarily focused on northern, poor, urban, minority communities and families. However, some scholars argue that mass incarceration is a southern story. In fact, the rural south has been considered a testing ground for the “tough on crime” policies associated with mass incarceration.

Along with an increase in the supply of prisoners through mass incarceration, “demand” for prison placement has resulted in prison proliferation or the widespread construction of prison facilities throughout the U.S. 1152 prisons were built between 1970 and 2006—more than all prior U.S. history. Surprisingly, our understanding of prison impact on rural communities is minimal despite nearly 70% of the new facilities being constructed in rural areas during the prison building boom of the past forty years. Prison proliferation has severely altered the physical, social, economic, and political landscape of rural America.  With few exceptions, scholars fail to consider where and why prisons are built, how these places are impacted economically, or local perceptions of these impacts. While studies of prison towns are increasing, the causes and consequences of the prison boom remain under investigated.

To this end, this inquiry builds on recent prison town studies by examining the economic and demographic outcomes of disadvantaged rural towns that received a private prison and comparing these outcomes to towns that received a public facility. By understanding how prisons impact rural towns the sources of prison “demand” in rural communities can be better understood. If we understand why rural towns “demand” prisons we can better explain prison proliferation.

The original quantitative data that I have already compiled and geocoded consists of the entire population of U.S. prisons allowing a comparative analysis of prison and rural towns. In addition to novel data, I use innovate analysis such as propensity score matching and multilevel fixed effects analysis to explore the impact of prison building on economic, crime, and demographic changes during the prison boom 1970-2000 across all rural U.S. census places (codebook).

This research project elaborates theories developed in my ethnographic book published in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press, “Big House on the Prairie: Rise of the Rural Ghetto and Prison Proliferation”.