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Jails: Time to Wake Up to Mass Incarceration in Your Neighborhood

Jails admit nearly 12 million people every year. Yet they are largely off the radar of critics of mass incarceration. However, as a new report by Vera Institute and actions by activists around the country demonstrate, jails matter.

Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center; Chicago, Illinois.,Eric Allix Rogers

In February, the MacArthur Foundation launched a $75 million grant initiative to support counties and cities in developing strategies to reduce jail populations. Julia Stasch, MacArthur's president, noted that "jails are where our nation's incarceration problem begins [and] too often serve as warehouses for those too poor to post bail, nonviolent offenders, or people with mental illness." The MacArthur initiative represents a belated awakening to the reality that jails are the local face of mass incarceration and, in many places, the New Jim Crow.

To date, popular knowledge about jails has remained a compendium of scenes from "Cops," MSNBC's "Lockup" or the pics circulated by on their website and their widely distributed magazine. But the critical lens is widening. Even small Midwestern towns are taking action.

On February 23, the city council of Urbana, Illinois, passed a resolution condemning mass incarceration. The resolution went on to urge their county board, currently debating a much contested $32 million jail proposal, to stop jail planning until funding was mobilized to alternatives to incarceration.

In 2013, there were nearly 12 million admissions to jails, almost double the 1980 figure and nearly 19 times the number of prison admissions.

As a recent major report by the Vera Institute asserts, "jails matter."  The sheer scale of jail operations supports this argument. According to the Vera report, in 2013, there were nearly 12 million admissions to jails, almost double the 1980 figure and nearly 19 times the number of prison admissions. While at a given moment jails hold only about 30 percent of the nation's 2.2 million people behind bars, turnover in jails is much faster, resulting in the enormous admissions levels. Virtually everyone in prison is serving at least a year, but the average jail stay in 2013 was 23 days. Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, which has covered the issue for many years, told Truthout, "In some ways, jails affect a lot more people than prisons do."

Part of the impact of jails is that they are everywhere - almost every county as well as many cities have one. They range from the 20,000-person Los Angeles County facility spread across eight different sites to Mayberry-style lockups in O'Brien County, Iowa, with a capacity of 44. While the actual number of jails hasn't grown appreciably in the last three decades, their populations have been expanding at a meteoric rate. Per capita jail incarceration has risen from 96 per 100,000 in 1983 to a peak of 259 per 100,000 in 2007, with a slight decline to 231 per 100,000 in 2013. This expansion in jail population has drained huge levels of resources from local government budgets. Vera states that $22 billion went to local corrections in 2011, 235 percent greater than 1982 funding levels.

Behind the Population Boom

Several factors have contributed to rising jail populations. First, local authorities have adopted harsher, tough-on-crime policies at the city and county level. The criminalization of poverty has led the way, often under the banner of "zero tolerance" approaches, which have outlawed survival linked activities. Rules against selling goods on the street and "aggressive" panhandling have left vulnerable populations with little legal means of generating income. Silicon Valley even passed an ordinance against living in a car, while Las Vegas prohibited sharing food in public, a blow against efforts to feed the hungry by Food Not Bombs.

The New Jim Crow has a local face: Although Blacks make up only 14 percent of the nation's population, they comprise 36 percent of the jail population.

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In addition, the flow of people into county jails has been enhanced by aggressive, racialized policing largely inspired by the war on drugs and, more recently, the war on immigrants. In the early 1980s, less than 10 percent of those in jail faced drug charges. By the late 1980s, after Ronald Reagan intensified the war on drugs, the figure rose to nearly a quarter of jail populations, where it has remained since that time. Not surprisingly, this has disproportionately impacted people of color. In fact, the New Jim Crow has a local face: Although Blacks make up only 14 percent of the nation's population, they comprise 36 percent of the jail population.

Second, people are being forced to stay in jail for longer periods of time. Most of those admitted to jails remain incarcerated until their case is resolved. Alternatively, they gain pretrial release via posting money bail or are released without payment, called "on one's own recognizance." One feature of the post-1980, tough-on-crime revolution has been increased application of money bail. According to Vera, in 1990, money bail was being set in 53 percent of felony cases. By 2006, that figure had jumped to 70 percent. The absolute cost of bail has also gone up.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, the average bail for a person with a felony charge in a large urban area rose by $30,000 from 1992 to 2006. As the use of money bail has gone up, pretrial release rates have gone down. In 1990, 65 percent of felony defendants were released while awaiting trial, compared to 58 percent in 2006. The New Jim Crow is here as well.

According to a Pre-Trial Institute study, African-Americans' bail averaged 35 percent higher than whites with similar charges. Latinos' bail was 15 percent higher.

Who's in Jail?

While the stereotype of "jailbirds" may be "hardened criminals" on their way to Attica or Leavenworth, the vast majority of people in jails are guilty of one thing: being poor and vulnerable in a context where social services are on the decline. For example, people with mental illnesses, mostly those who do not have medical insurance, frequently end up in jail because of a personal crisis. Although exact numbers of people with mental illness in jail are difficult to calculate, a 2006 report from the Bureau of Justice estimated that 75 percent of women and 63 percent of men in jails suffered from some form of mental illness. The same report indicated that less than 20 percent of these people received treatment for their conditions.  Another investigation in 2009 of 20,000 people in five different jails found 17 percent fell into the category of serious mental illness.  To top it off, according to a 2009 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, there is not a single county in the United States where a psychiatric facility holds more people with mental illness than the county jail.
Increasingly, failure to pay fines results in punishment by suspension of a person's driver's license, even if the original fine had nothing to do with a traffic offense.

People with traffic offenses comprise another large cohort of those in jail, particularly those charged with driving on a suspended license. The imprisonment of these individuals is closely linked to the commercialization of local incarceration, and the plethora of fees and fines that now apply to virtually everyone who enters the criminal justice system. Recent investigations of Ferguson, Missouri, have brought this situation to light. Research by lawyers known as the Arch City Defenders revealed that Ferguson authorities received 13 percent of total revenue from traffic fines, with 86 percent of fines levied on African-Americans.

But traffic fines are not the only aspect of the commercialization of incarceration. In Benton County, Washington, jail records obtained by an NPR study show that a quarter of the people who were in jail for misdemeanor offenses had simply failed to pay court fines and fees. The categories of these charges have multiplied in recent years, often venturing into the realm of the inexplicable. Oklahoma Watch recently posted a list of charges in their state. They included a fingerprinting fee of $5, an $11 charge for court security and a $433 filing fee for someone found guilty of a DUI. In some parts of the state, if a person was arrested in a county other than where they were charged, they had to pay 57 cents per mile to be transported back to their charging county.

Increasingly, failure to pay fines results in punishment by suspension of a person's driver's license, even if the original fine had nothing to do with a traffic offense.

According to a New Jersey report, just 6 percent of driver's license suspensions occurred due to a purely traffic related offense. Stories from the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) point out that suspending a driver's license often comes as a penalty for being in arrears with child support payment. However, interviewees told CCA that they often continued to drive after suspensions as they needed cars to get to work and transport family members. Eventually, they got pulled over by the police, had their ID run through law enforcement computer systems and ended up facing a charge for driving with a suspended license. To make matters worse, many states have put mandatory minimum sentences in place for driving without a license. In Washington State, a person gets 10 days in jail for a first offense and 90 days for the second, regardless of mitigating circumstances.

Jail Conditions, Lack of Regulation

Once people do land in jail, conditions are often horrific. This excerpt from a lawsuit filed on behalf of people incarcerated in the Ferguson city jail sounds like something from Abu Ghraib:

They are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus and blood; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean underwear; they step on top of other inmates, whose bodies cover nearly the entire uncleaned cell floor, in order to access a single shared toilet that the city does not clean.

Though conditions vary considerably across jurisdictions, the situation in Ferguson is not unusual. Paul Wright maintains that jails often lack the "oversight and accountability" applied in state institutions. In many places, sheriffs operate virtual carceral fiefdoms with few restrictions. The classic case is the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Arizona's Maricopa County. "Sheriff Joe" has gained a reputation for humiliating and stigmatizing people in his custody. In 1993, he set up a tent city where people were incarcerated in tents in which the temperature inside reached 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Arpaio has become so proud of the jail that the county even offers tours. Arpaio has also implemented clothing changes, forcing males in custody to wear pink underwear and throwback striped uniforms.

"Jails are deliberately made to be pretty horrific places in order to induce people to plead guilty."

While Arpaio is extreme, many big city jails like Chicago's Cook County, Los Angeles County and New York's Rikers Island are constantly under fire for dehumanizing conditions. Gregory Koger, who spent 11 years in Illinois prisons and jails, told Truthout, "Jails are hellholes." While assuring Truthout he didn't want to extol prison conditions, especially in the isolation units where he spent six years, Koger noted that life inside Cook County meant being locked "in monotonous cell blocks with little-to-no educational programs, recreational activities or even access to books and newspapers."

Thomas Parker, a former FBI agent who oversaw an investigation into the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, described what he saw in Los Angeles County jail like this: "I have never experienced any facility exhibiting the volume and repetitive patterns of violence, misfeasance and malfeasance."

Wright maintains the controversial view that these situations are not an accident. "Jails are deliberately made to be pretty horrific places in order to induce people to plead guilty," he said. More than 90 percent of cases in the criminal justice system never come to trial. A resolution, called a plea bargain, is hatched between the prosecution and the defense. For the large number of people who can't manage to post bail before their case gets to court, spending long periods of time in an uncomfortable jail setting ratchets up the pressure for them to accept a plea bargain. After several months in a facility like Cook or Los Angeles County, people forget about the long-term. They then succumb to a negotiation to end their temporary jail stay to get to a prison that is likely to have much more by way of activities and provisions.

Responding to the Jail Epidemic

Jail conditions have been the target of a range of legal actions, with cases involving deaths in custody and contestation of rules that allow communication via postcards only.

However, some local jurisdictions have begun to look at ways to reduce jail populations rather than improving jail conditions. For example, New York authorities have relaxed drug laws by using citations instead of arrests and removing mandatory minimums. This contributed to a decline in drug arrests, from 40,361 in 2008 to 29,960 in 2012.

"Rehabilitation, housing and job training are much more effective ways to invest in the community and create real and long-lasting public safety, as opposed to dumping poor people, mentally ill people and people of color in jail."

Another area of focus has been diversion programs such as pretrial services, drug courts and mental health courts. These kick in once a person is arrested. While diversion programs are fairly widespread, their results have been controversial. The Drug Policy Alliance, for example, claims that drug courts don't produce any significant positive change and still maintain a punitive ethos. Many of these diversions rely on statistically generated risk assessment tools to determine eligibility for programs. While proponents argue that such tools are evidence-based, critics like former Fortune Society head Glenn Martin contend that they contain race and class bias, thereby reinforcing existing disparities in the criminal justice system.

Other jurisdictions have tried reallocating resources from corrections to preventive programs designed to service people before arrest. Places like San Antonio, Texas, and Peoria, Illinois, for example, have set up community-based crisis centers as an alternative to jail. These function as a location where police can take people experiencing a mental health crisis or those who are overly intoxicated instead of taking them to jail. In many communities, both mental health facilities and detox centers have been closed due to budget cuts.

Another type of preventive action, particularly in areas with large immigrant populations, has been pressuring local authorities to opt out of the federal government's Secure Communities program. Under Secure Communities, local sheriffs agree to hold undocumented people in their custody an extra 48 hours beyond their release time while immigration authorities decide whether to bring them into federal custody. In practice, many jails have held people in this status for far longer than the mandated 48 hours, effectively amounting to unlawful imprisonment.

Opposing Jail Construction

In some areas, rather than getting involved in delivering programs, activists have mobilized around opposing jail construction projects and reallocating money into the community.

In Los Angeles, the Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) has fought a three-year No More Jails campaign battle to keep the County Board of Supervisors from funding a multibillion-dollar jail renewal project. CURB has fought off several rounds of proposals before the board, but finally lost part of the battle when the supervisors passed a resolution in 2014 allocating $2 billion to build a number of new facilities, including a $200 million women's jail.

The Los Angeles campaign has raised issues faced by many anti-mass incarceration activists across the country. In many places, sheriffs and state corrections are now recasting themselves as social service providers. In the Los Angeles case, jail construction proponents have promoted the idea of "gender-responsive" institutions, arguing that outdated facilities are built on an old, male-oriented model that doesn't sync with the needs of women. Similar "humanitarian" arguments have been made for upgrading mental health facilities in the jail. CURB activist Mary Sutton opposes this course, arguing for investment in "rehabilitation, housing [and] job training." She said, "These are much more effective ways to invest in the community and create real and long-lasting public safety, as opposed to dumping poor people, mentally ill people and people of color in jail."

Jail building was also a target of social justice activists in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The storm leveled a county jail, which held 6,500 people. Law enforcement came forward with a proposal to rebuild and restore the jail population to its pre-Katrina levels. However, community activists waged a campaign that included popular suggestions as to how the money targeted for the jail could best be spent. Thousands of people brought forward alternative ideas and put pressure on local authorities. The result was a scaled-down jail of just 1,500 beds and a lot more money going to social programs.

Anti-jail activity has not been confined to big cities. Organization like Decarcerate Monroe County in Bloomington, Indiana; Stop the Jail Committee in Beaufort County, North Carolina; and Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ) have waged successful campaigns to halt, shrink or slow down jail construction in their areas.

As the awareness of mass incarceration grows, social justice advocates and activists, especially those located away from major urban centers, will likely increasingly turn to transforming jailing policies and halting jail construction projects as possible effective grassroots action to contribute to transforming the criminal justice system.

Copyright, Truthout.  Reprinted with permission.

James Kilgore is a writer and activist based in Urbana, Illinois. He writes widely on issues related to mass incarceration and is the author of three novels, all of which were drafted during his six and a half years in prison. His current book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, will be published by The New Press later this year. He can be contacted at or @waazn.