Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Earth & Environmental Sciences


Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Committee Members

Cindi Katz

Monica Varsanyi

Subject Categories

Human Geography


This is a study of how prisons became a common sense solution to economic and social decline in northern New York in the 1980s, about how prisons became synonymous with development in rural counties in the long wake of New York City’s fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s. The United States imprisons more people per capita than any other nation-state on earth. The number of U.S. prisoners has increased nearly six fold since 1970 and there are now over 2.25 million people incarcerated across the country. Accompanying and encouraging this rise in the prison population was an expansion of the prisons themselves, with many states building new correctional facilities in depressed rural areas or deindustrializing small towns. New York State, emerging from the economic crisis of the mid-70s and shifting its development priorities from urban renewal to carceral expansion, presided over a vast prison infrastructure build-up in rural areas and deindustrializing small towns from the 1980s to 2000.

The increase in the prison population over the past 40 years involved a concomitant broadening and deepening of prison capacity: one of the most expansive and expensive infrastructural projects in the history of a state that has led the country in massive public works. Thirty-eight new prisons were built in New York in the period between 1983 and 2000, despite the electorate’s rejection, in a referendum in 1981, of a bond issue meant to fund new prison construction. To bypass the voters of the state, in order to continue to expand carceral infrastructure, then-Governor Mario Cuomo and the New York State Legislature funded new prison construction in the 80s and 90s through the Urban Development Corporation (UDC), a public corporation created by Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 to build low income urban housing. The story of how New York expanded the state prison system is then also the story of how financial technologies and governmental and quasi-governmental (or shadow-governmental) institutions transformed and were transformed by the economic and social crises of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

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