Over the past three decades, many of the nation’s most depressed rural communities have vied to host new prisons, hoping that economic benefits would follow.

The trend grew in the early 1990s when an average of three 500-bed prisons opened around the country each week. Small towns courted new correctional facilities, sometimes offering free land or discounted municipal services to tempt them, believing they would get returns in new jobs and money.

But now they may be thinking differently about prisons, thanks to research led by Washington State University sociologist Gregory Hooks.

“We found no evidence that prison expansion has stimulated economic growth,” Hooks says of his nationwide assessment of towns with both new and existing prisons. In fact, the study Hooks undertook with colleagues Clay Mosher and Thomas Rotolo, and with Linda Lobao, an Ohio State University sociologist and recent president of the Rural Sociological Society, turned up a number of surprising results.

“There is a visible pattern of earnings and employment growth,” Hooks notes. “However, those counties without a prison have the highest annual rate of growth–and those with a newly built prison grew at the slowest pace.”

Prior studies of communities with prisons relied on the perceptions of business leaders or considered only a small number of sites. By contrast, the more recent WSU research analyzes the economic impacts of prisons in more than 3,100 counties throughout 48 states and suggests that traditional indicators of economic health, such as growth in earnings, per capita income, and employment, showed relatively little improvement as the result of prison construction.

The findings also show that small communities may be paying too high a premium to attract prisons. “Desperate for jobs, rural counties are diverting large portions of limited infrastructure budgets to support a correctional facility,” says Hooks. As a result, the town may not have the roads, schools, or water delivery systems needed to attract other potential employers, he says.

In a related study not yet published, WSU’s Mosher worked with sociologists from Mississippi State University to identify what stymies growth in prison towns. His work with MSU sociologist Peter B. Wood points out that the majority of prison construction jobs and internal prison jobs goes to workers from outside the communities with correctional centers.

“A prison pulls employees from a geographically large area. And because the jobs are relatively high wage, local residents face stiff competition from more qualified candidates from farther away,” the study concludes.

And being a “prison town” can cause other economic development to evaporate, the researchers say. Many of the communities’ private companies are trading their full-time employees for inmates who accept substandard wages. “In recent years, inmates have engaged in jobs ranging from telemarketing to the manufacturing of computer circuit boards and furniture,” says Mosher. “Prisoners in California have served as booking agents for Trans World Airlines, while Microsoft uses convicts to assist in the shipping of Windows software. Honda pays $2 an hour to prisoners in Ohio to do the same jobs that members of the United Auto Workers Union were once paid $20 an hour to do.”

While most of the expected benefits of being a prison town rarely materialize, another type of financial reward might, says Mosher. In towns where inmates represent a large portion or even a majority of the total population, the town qualifies for more state and federal aid dollars.

The researchers point to Florence, Arizona, which in the 2000 Census had a population of 17,054,  only 5,224 of whom lived outside prison walls. Thanks to two state prisons, three private prisons, and a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center, prisoners made up 70 percent of the population, the highest nationally of any town larger than 10,000. Since the census, Florence has paid for two special recounts, each time increasing the town’s prison count as well as its potential for state and federal funding, which now amounts to more than $4 million per year.

But few small communities have such disproportionately large prison populations. And despite prevailing claims and expectations to the contrary, the statistical data published earlier this year by Hooks and his colleagues provide strong evidence that seeking to improve the economy with prison construction can be a risky proposition.