The Macksey Journal


For the last four decades, incarceration in the United States has risen in areas where few would expect: rural ex-mining and agricultural counties with low crime rates. In response, a body of literature has emerged revealing a nationwide trend in which declining counties invest in correctional facilities as a last-ditch economic revitalization strategy. However, researchers have focused on state and federal prison construction projects while neglecting the impact of county jails on growing rural incarceration rates. Since the 1970s, hundreds of counties have expanded their jails to house federal inmates. As jails are the first stage of incarceration, policies concerning their use directly influence mass incarceration. In this paper, I analyze contracts, data, and reports from federal, state, and county-level correctional agencies in a case study of Lackawanna County Jail in Northeast Pennsylvania. Mapping this case onto national trends, I argue that despite offering temporary economic relief, rural jail expansion and contracting incentivize national and local incarceration and offer a false economic solution. In examining the case, I show that the jail's 1997 expansion and subsequent contracts have harmed the local workforce and produced a number of high-profile lawsuits concerning human rights abuses. Indeed, jails are intended for low occupancy and short sentences, and when used for long-term sentences, result in inhumane conditions and higher recidivism rates. The results of this study illuminate the hidden mechanisms and negative externalities of rural jail contracting and begin to address an unaddressed part of rural incarceration.