Prison Part of a Way of Life in U.S.

Study Tracks Boom in Prisons and Notes Impact on Counties

April 30, 2004 | New York Times


A study mapping the prisons built in the boom of the last two decades has found that some counties in the United States now have more than 30 percent of their residents behind bars. The study, by the Urban Institute, also found that nearly a third of counties have at least one prison.

“This study shows that the prison network is now deeply intertwined with American life, deeply integrated into the physical and economic infrastructure of a large number of American counties,” said Jeremy Travis, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and an author of the study.

“This network has become a separate reality, apart from the criminal justice system,” Mr. Travis said. “It provides jobs for construction workers and guards, and because the inmates are counted as residents of the counties where they are incarcerated, it means more federal and state funding and greater political representation for these counties.”

In addition, Mr. Travis said, because the study found that prisons were increasingly being built far from the cities where most inmates come from, “we are making it harder and harder for their families to remain in contact with them.” As a result, he said, “we have made it harder for these inmates to successfully re-enter society when they are released.”

The study, “The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America’s Prison Expansion,” was released yesterday. The number of federal and state prisons grew from 592 in 1974 to 1,023 in 2000, and this study is the first effort to show where all the building has taken place. In 1923, the United States had 61 prisons.

The report focuses on the 10 states that had the largest increases in the number of prisons between 1980 and 2000, when the number of state and federal inmates soared to 1.3 million from 315,974.

Texas led the way, building 120 prisons in those two decades, or an average of nearly six a year. Texas also has the most prisons in operation, 137, and the largest percentage increase in the number of prisons, 706 percent.

“Texas is in a league of its own,” the report concluded.

Florida has been the second-busiest prison builder since 1980, with 84, while California is third with 83. New York, with 65, is fourth.

One of the most striking findings of the report was that in 1980, only 13 percent of the counties in these 10 states had a prison, but by 2000, 31 percent did. In Florida, 78 percent of the counties have at least one prison. In California, 59 percent do, while in New York the figure is 52 percent.

One force behind the spread of prisons to so many counties, Mr. Travis said, has been a strong argument by rural legislators that building prisons in their communities would be an economic boon. “We’ve seen the development of a prison construction advocacy position,” he said.

But the report said there was no clear evidence that building prisons in poor rural areas had a significant economic impact. In fact, it cited one study, by the Sentencing Project, using 25 years of employment and per capita income data from rural counties in New York, which found “no significant difference or discernible pattern of economic trends” between counties that were home to a prison and counties that did not have one.

The Sentencing Project is a research and advocacy group based in Washington that calls for alternatives to incarceration.

But having a large number of inmates can produce extra federal and state financing for a county, the Urban Institute report pointed out. Federal money for Medicaid, foster care, adoption assistance and social services block grants is based on the census, and the census counts prison inmates as residents of the county where they are incarcerated, not where their homes are. Conversely, the federal money is lost to the home communities of the inmates or their families, creating a financial burden on those areas because inmates disproportionately come from concentrated areas of large cities.

Similarly, within a state, money for community health services, roads and local law enforcement is also based on census figures.

The report found that the county with the largest share of its residents in prison was Concho County, Tex., with a population of just under 4,000 and 33 percent of its population in prison.

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