During America’s prison boom, the country built more than 1,000 new prisons in a span of 30 years. While such growth boosted rural economies, the era also created a perverse incentive to mass incarcerate more Americans.

But since 2000, the US has closed more prisons than it’s opened. Nearly 80 percent of those closures happened in urban communities, which are equipped to withstand the economic fallout of closures due to their already diversified economies.

As states close prisons in rural communities, the question becomes, how can rural communities survive the economic loss and build resilient economic futures? With a vision and plan to address the opportunities and challenges of closing prisons in towns, rural communities can thrive beyond the confines of mass incarceration.

Why do communities fight prison closures?
When prisons close in rural places, the communities are often left to fend for themselves. For example, Blythe, California, is a town of more than 15,000 where most residents and people working in the local prison are Black or Latine. When Blythe community members discovered attempts to close the prison, they reached out to the organizers and requested a delay to allow time for them to find viable industries for new jobs.

Shutting down the prison would mean losing 800 jobs, leaving employees without a way to make a living and support their families. Such a dramatic loss of jobs makes it imperative for prison closure advocates to pair their advocacy with an understanding of strategies to maintain the stability of rural communities.

Replacing prisons with other economic development options
Rural towns often find prisons attractive because of their potential for job creation. However, alternatives like green energy, agriculture, and tourism hold potential.

Industries like green energy and agriculture, which thrive on rural towns’ ample space, offer promising alternative employment opportunities. The US Department of Energy highlights that many green energy jobs are aimed at creating economic prospects, especially for communities historically overlooked, which could benefit rural communities of color.

Read the full article about closing rural prisons by Susan Nembhard, Travis Reginal, and John M. Eason at Urban Institute.