PULLMAN, Wash. — Throughout a boom in correctional facility construction that has spanned the past three decades, many of the nation’s most depressed rural communities have vied to become a site for new prisons, expecting significant economic benefits would follow.

As the U.S. prison population grew almost 400 percent between 1980 and 1998 – to about 1.3 million inmates – it became widely accepted economic development dogma that communities that secured prison projects could expect significant economic rewards.

Although such claims met skepticism among some social scientists, there was scant evidence available to dispute them until the publication this year of the results of a research effort led by Gregory Hooks, chairman of the department of sociology at Washington State University.

Done in collaboration with WSU sociologists Clay Mosher and Thomas Rotolo and Linda Lobao, an Ohio State University sociologist and recent president of the Rural Sociological Society – the study turned up some surprising results.    

“We found no evidence that prison expansion has stimulated economic growth,” Hooks said of the nationwide study that assessed of the impact of both new and existing prisons over the past 25 years.

In fact, in findings that proved the most dramatic reversal of conventional wisdom on the subject, the new study concluded that becoming home to a prison facility may actually hinder economic development efforts, particularly in rural communities that are already hard-pressed.  

 “We provide evidence that prison construction has actually impeded economic growth in those rural communities that were already growing at a slower pace.” Hooks said. “Among slow-growing counties, it appears that new prisons do more harm than good.”

Unlike prior studies, which the researchers said relied largely on the perceptions of business leaders or considered only a small number of study sites, the most recent research analyzed the economic impacts of prisons on communities in more than 3,100 counties throughout 48 states.

It suggests that three major traditional indicators of economic well-being in rural communities – growth in earnings, per capita income, and employment – consistently showed relatively little improvement as the result of local prison construction throughout the period from 1969 to 1994.

“There is a visible pattern of earnings and employment growth,” Hooks noted. “However, those counties without a prison have the highest annual rate of growth – and those with a newly built prison grew at the slowest pace.”

While the researchers suggest additional study is needed to explain why prisons seem to impede economic growth in some communities, they believe the findings are an indication small towns may be paying too high a premium in their efforts to attract such facilities.

“The increasing practice of host communities competing to provide incentives is shifting prison infrastructure investment costs from corrections bureaucracies to local governments,” Hooks said.

 “Desperate for jobs, rural counties are diverting large portions of limited infrastructure budgets to support a correctional facility,” he said. “As a result, the infrastructure may become ill-suited for other potential employers, and local governments may have fewer funds left over for other investments in the local infrastructure.”

In a follow-up paper that has yet to be published, WSU’s Mosher worked with sociologists from Mississippi State University to identify factors that may contribute to the lack of economic growth experienced in communities that accept prison facilities.

Led by Peter B. Wood, a sociologist with the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at Mississippi State, this most recent research paper points out that the vast majority of prison construction jobs, and even the majority of internal prison jobs – some 60 percent nationally – go to workers from outside the communities where new prisons are sited.

 “They are most likely to live in a neighboring community with more amenities and no prison,” Wood said.  “Thus, their consumer behaviors – shopping, banking, housing, schooling, etc. – usually influence markets outside the prison community.”

Once a county or community is known as a “prison town,” discussion of other kinds of economic development often evaporates, the researchers noted.

Indeed – in a trend that has had an increasingly detrimental impact on employment and wages in small communities and elsewhere – the researchers note that private companies increasingly are hiring inmates at sub-standard wages in an effort to lower their employment costs.

 “In recent years, inmates have engaged in jobs ranging from telemarketing to the manufacturing of computer circuit boards and furniture,” Mosher said. “Prisoners in California have served as booking agents for Trans World Airlines, while Microsoft uses convicts to assist in the shipping of Windows software. Honda pays $2 an hour to prisoners in Ohio to do the same jobs that members of the United Auto Workers Union were once paid $20 an hour to do.”

The researchers cite several earlier studies involving companies that have begun employing prisoners, only to close down their outside operations elsewhere. In one example researched in 1999, a Texas-based company named American Microelectronics employed approximately 150 workers at its headquarters in Austin before shutting down its operations there and reopening within a Texas prison with an all-inmate workforce.

While concluding that most of the anticipated economic benefits of housing prisoners in small communities rarely materialize, the study found evidence there can be another type of significant financial reward for small communities willing to host relatively large prison populations.

“The exception seems to be in towns where inmates may represent a large proportion or even a majority of the total population and the town is able to qualify for more state and federal aid dollars,” Mosher said.

As an example, researchers cite the case of Florence, Arizona, which recorded a 2000 census population of 17,054 – only 5,224 of whom live outside local prison walls.  With two state prisons, three private prisons, and a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center, prisoners account for 70 percent of the town’s population, which is the highest nationally of any town of more than 10,000. 

Since inmates count as residents for U.S. Census purposes, the researchers said Florence has twice paid for special recounts to update its population, each time increasing the town’s share of state and federal funding, which now amounts to more than $4 million per year.

But relatively few small communities play host to such disproportionately large prison populations or enjoy major windfalls in government funding. And despite prevailing claims and expectations to the contrary, the statistical data published earlier this year by Hooks and his colleagues provide strong evidence that seeking to benefit economically from prison construction can be an inherently risky proposition.

“Ironically, despite sharp ideological and intellectual differences, the critics and the advocates of the prison-construction boom share the assumption that prisons have contributed to local growth, especially in hard pressed local areas,” said Hooks. “Regardless of the ideology and political aims, claims that prison construction accelerates local economic development fly in the face of mounting evidence that state and local initiatives rarely impact local growth; and these claims are contradicted by our analysis.”