Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America

Publication date: 
June, 2017
Source(s): 
Vera Institute of Justice

Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America

America’s 3,283 local jails are the “front door” to mass incarceration. But for too long, county jail systems have operated and grown outside of public view. Vera developed the Incarceration Trends data tool so that Americans could have access to information showing just how large their jails have grown, and who is held inside. Our latest analysis of this data reveals an unexpected and—for many—an unintuitive finding: there has been a dramatic shift in the geography of incarceration. 

During the past decade, the use of jails has declined sharply in urban areas while it has grown ever-higher in rural areas. Mass incarceration affects cities and towns of every size—and the most outsized jails are now in the least populous areas. It is not surprising this phenomenon has gone undetected; scholarship, advocacy, and media tend to focus on big cities.

Rural counties have been out of sight and out of mind in much of America. We saw this plainly in the last election. Their burgeoning jails are a window into the pain in those places, and a symptom of the challenges many of them confront—such as shrinking economies, deteriorating public health, negligible services and pervasive addiction. In fact, the 2,623 primarily small and rural counties that chose Donald Trump in the 2016 election have more people in their jails and a higher jail incarceration rate than the 489 counties that preferred Hillary Clinton. As this report shows, these rural places are playing a growing and outsized role in driving incarceration.

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