Do Prisons Boost Local Economies? Studies Suggest No
Rural communities can certainly gain a political boost from having a prison in their area — thanks to prison-based gerrymandering — but do they also benefit economically? Apart from security concerns, decisions to build prisons in out-of-the-way areas were often defended in recent decades as a way to boost local economies, especially in rural areas that had lost manufacturing or agricultural jobs. But studies show the economic benefits of a local prison may be mostly imagined. The issue is in the news again with the ongoing debate over whether to relocate Guantanamo Bay detainees to northwest Illinois. The Christian Science Monitor reports:
Studies over the past decade conclude that prisons have done little to change the economic realities of rural communities. … In some circumstances, research suggests, prisons have actually done harm.
“The towns that get prisons, especially the most desperate communities, tend to be worse off,” says Gregory Hooks, a sociology professor at Washington State University and author of two studies of rural prisons. “That was a surprise.”
Mr. Hooks and other researchers have used census data to compare rural counties with and without prisons. These studies show that prisons fail to increase total employment, raise incomes, or reduce poverty. It’s not clear why. One reason may be that local people get relatively few prison jobs because they lack the skills and qualifications needed to work as guards or administrative staff. Researchers also speculate that prisons may displace other economic activity.
Moreover, unlike factories and other economic development, prisons generate little extra business. They are centralized institutions with their own distant suppliers. “Prisons have had nowhere the positive economic benefits people say they will have,” says Boyce Sherwin, a former director of community development in Malone, N.Y., a town with three prisons.