The nascent literature on prison proliferation in the United States typically reveals negative impacts for communities of color. Given that Southern rural communities were the most likely to build during the prison boom (1970–2010), however, a more nuanced understanding of prison impact is warranted. Using a dataset matching and geocoding all 1663 U.S. prisons with their Census-appointed place, this study explores the countervailing consequences of the prison boom on rural towns across multiple periods. For example, locales that adopted prisons at earlier stages of the prison boom era received a short-term boom compared to those that did not, but these effects were not lasting. Furthermore, later in the boom, prison-building protected towns against additional economic decline. Thus, neither entirely pariah nor panacea, the prison functions as a state-sponsored public works program for disadvantaged rural communities but also supports perverse economic incentives for prison proliferation. Methodological, substantive, theoretical, and policy implications regarding the intersection of race and punishment are explored.
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