The Prison Bust: Declining carceral capacity in an era of mass incarceration

Published date01 April 2024
AuthorJacob Harris,Kaitlyn M Sims,John M Eason,Louis Chuang,Victoria Ylizaliturri,Isabel Anadón,Erin Eife
Date01 April 2024
Subject MatterArticles
The Prison Bust: Declining
carceral capacity in an era
of mass incarceration
Jacob Harris
Cornell University, USA
Kaitlyn M Sims
University of Denver, USA
John M Eason
Brown University, USA
Louis Chuang
Cornell University, USA
Victoria Ylizaliturri
University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA
Isabel Anadón
University at Buffalo, SUNY
Erin Eife
Brown University, USA
While there is a growing literature investigating the causes and consequences of the US
prison boomthe tripling of prison facilities between 1970 and 2000much less is
known about current patterns of prison closures. We use novel data capturing the uni-
verse of prison closures (N =188) from 2000 to 2022 to identify and characterize what
we term the prison bust”—the period since 2000 when prison closures began to climb
and eventually eclipse new prison building. We show that the prison bust is, in part, a
Corresponding author:
Jacob Harris, Government, Cornell University, 123 Central Ave, Ithaca, New York, United States 14853.
Punishment & Society
2024, Vol. 26(2) 345367
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/14624745231214426
consequence of development-oriented prison-building policies that aggressively used
prisons to stimulate struggling local economies. The bust is primarily concentrated in
the counties that pursued prison building most aggressively, ref‌lecting a highly cyclical
and reactionary pattern of prison placement and closure. We also show that, relative
to counties with at least one prison but no closures, closures are concentrated in
metro counties with stronger local economies and multiple prisons. Overall, we high-
light the prison bust as an important new era in the history of US punishment and pro-
vide a new dataset for investigating its causes and consequences. We conclude by
discussing the theoretical and policy implications of these f‌indings.
prison boom, prison bust, political economy, mass incarceration, rural, carceral capacity
It is diff‌icult to overstate the scale of the carceral state in the United States. Approximately
1.2 million individuals are incarcerated within 1668 prison facilities across the country,
and nearly one-third of all counties contain at least one prison facility (Eason, 2017a;
Carson, 2022). While most research has focused on the massive carceral population,
much less attention has been paid to the enormity of carceral infrastructure and capacity
across the United States.One means of measuring carceral capacity, or the resources a
society devotes to punishment (Schoenfeld 2018: 19), is through the number and size of
prisons it contains.
Just 50 years ago, the scope of carceral capacity in the United States was signif‌icantly
smaller. In 1970, there were only 525 prisons nationwide (Eason, 2017a). As the saliency
of crime and tough on crimerhetoric spiked throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a new era
of prison building began. From 1970 to 2000, a period we call the prison boom, 1099 new
prison facilities were constructed (Eason, 2010). At the height of the boom, a new facility
was constructed an average of every 15 days (Chesney-Lind and Mauer, 2003). The
prison boom was particularly concentrated in rural areas, with more than half of
prisons built during the boom sited in rural counties (Eason, 2010). However, the moti-
vations behind the prison boom were more complex than simply keeping pace with rising
incarceration rates. Prisons were (and in many places remain) important economic, pol-
itical, and social institutions integral to the community fabric (Eason, 2017b).
In recent years, however, prisons have begun closing at an unprecedented rate, posing
oft-speculated but empirically unknown consequences for the communities that lose their
prison(s). We advance a framework for understanding the prison bust”—the period begin-
ning in 2000 when prison closures began trending upward and eventually outpaced new
prison openings. While a large body of work has sought to empirically map the causes
and consequences of the prison boom (Chirakijja, 2022; Eason, 2017a; Glasmeier, 2007;
King, 2004; Zhang, 2023), little is known about the current prison bust, including basic
346 Punishment & Society 26(2)

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