urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Prison Construction Boom Reaches 3 in 10 Counties

Document date: April 29, 2004
Released online: April 29, 2004

Contact: Stu Kantor, (202) 261-5283, skantor@ui.urban.org
Latricia Good, (202) 261-5709, lgood@ui.urban.org

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 29, 2004—With the explosion in the number of state and federal prisoners during the past two decades has come a significant expansion in the count and location of prison facilities, a new analysis by the nonpartisan Urban Institute shows.

In the 10 states experiencing the biggest growth in prisons, facilities were located in 13 percent of counties in 1979. By 2000, they could be found in 31 percent.

Because the federal census counts prisoners where they are incarcerated, a prison's location can have far-reaching impact, say Jeremy Travis and Sarah Lawrence, co-authors of "The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America's Prison Expansion." The number of state and federal prisoners nationally jumped by a million in two decades, rising from 315,974 in 1980 to 1,321,137 in 2000.

"Prisons built in communities far away from prisoners' homes make visitation more difficult," they note. "But the locations of prisons can affect the distribution of political power, the allocation of governmental resources, and the economies of the communities in which the new institutions are built and those from which the prisoners are drawn. Every dollar transferred to a 'prison community' is a dollar that is not given to the home community of a prisoner, which is often among the country's most disadvantaged urban areas."

Travis is a senior fellow in the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center and the former director of the National Institute of Justice. Sarah Lawrence is an independent consultant and former Urban Institute researcher. Their study, funded by the JEHT Foundation, examines prison expansion and dispersal from national, state, and county perspectives. It uses data from the decennial census and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics to focus on state and federal facilities housing adult offenders sentenced to a year or more.

The Geography of Prisons and Prisoners
As a group, the 10 leading states—Texas, Florida, California, New York, Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Colorado, and Missouri—operated more than three times as many prisons in 2000 as in 1979 (604 facilities versus 195). In each state, the number of prisons and inmates more than doubled over the two decades.

Florida witnessed the highest level of prison dispersion during the 1980s and 1990s. Fifty-two of its 67 counties (78 percent) had at least one prison by 2000, with 24 counties receiving their first prison during the century's last decades. With 59 percent of its counties home to a prison, California was a distant second in terms of geographic dispersion.

The 10 states accounted for 63 percent of the country's new prisons between 1979 and 2000. Colorado's Fremont County gained the most prisons of any county, 10. Texas led all states with 137 new prisons, a 706-percent increase.

"Texas is in a league of its own," says Travis. "Texas added the most prisons, saw the largest percentage increase in its network of prisons, entered the new century with the largest number of prisons, had the biggest growth in counties that are home to at least one prison, and had the most counties increasing their prison count by three or more facilities."

Thirteen counties in the 10 states, including eight counties in Texas, had 20 to 29 percent of the resident population imprisoned in 2000. Each state had at least five counties in which 5 to 9 percent of the population was imprisoned and at least one county at the 10 to 19 percent level.

The most populous county with more than 10 percent of its residents incarcerated was Kings County, California, where 13 percent of its approximately 130,000 residents were in prison in 2000. The county with the largest share of its residents in prison was Concho County in Texas: with just under 4,000 people in 2000, it had 33 percent of its inhabitants in prison.

Where prisoners are sentenced and where they are incarcerated generally differ, Travis and Lawrence found after reviewing data from five states that could provide the sentencing counties of state prisoners (California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas). Only four of 626 counties were on a state's lists of top sentencing counties and top imprisonment counties. The largest sources of prisoners were aligned with the major cities in a state. At the same time, counties with prisoners were more widely dispersed across the states.

"The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America's Prison Expansion," by Sarah Lawrence and Jeremy Travis, was made possible by a grant from the JEHT Foundation. The study is available at http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=410994. It is part of the Urban Institute's ongoing research on crime and justice issues. For more, go to http://urban.org/r/crime.cfm.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice

Usage and reprints: Most publications may be downloaded free of charge from the web site and may be used and copies made for research, academic, policy or other non-commercial purposes. Proper attribution is required. Posting UI research papers on other websites is permitted subject to prior approval from the Urban Institute—contact publicaffairs@urban.org.

If you are unable to access or print the PDF document please contact us or call the Publications Office at (202) 261-5687.

Disclaimer: The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Copyright of the written materials contained within the Urban Institute website is owned or controlled by the Urban Institute.

Email this Page