American jails are often considered to be among the world’s worst. While jails in countries like Argentina, Turkey and Mexico are bad because of low standards, American jails are made worse by capitalism, green and apathy.
While the well-off avoid jail time, even for serious crimes, the indigent and mentally ill often spend time behind bars even before they’re convicted. A recent report from the Vera Institute for Justice highlights some of the problems in America’s jails.
The jail system in America has criminalized poverty. Housing hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people, the system has become plagued by a chronic institutional incapacity — and it does so with no oversight or media coverage. The stage has been set for a routine violation of individuals’ constitutional rights.
In reality, only dangerous criminals — or flight risks — are supposed to be detained before trial. The money machine called “War on Crime” has turned jails into warehouses for putting away people too poor to even post the lowest bail or too sick for community resources to manage.
The federal-level legislators can quickly make one change to address this. The 1989 Bail Reform Act made it easy to incarcerate people before trial. Holding people who are called a flight risk or seen as likely to commit more crimes is one thing. It becomes indefensible for anyone to be locked up because of an inability to pay. Poverty is not a crime and research shows that the size of bail doesn’t help when it comes to either preventing flight or stopping new offenses.
In fact, relying on higher bail often backfires. People who are at high-risk for fleeing often have the means to pay.
Privatization Complicates and Makes Everything Worse
The money machine, known as jails, has not escaped America’s penchant for capitalism. Jails and prisons are prime targets for privatization because the incentives to profit are perverse and voluminous.
The idea of a private prison service is at odds with the justification for privatization. A private prison offers none of the apparatuses by which free markets work. Prisoners do not have a consumer choice, nor do they have political power. A prisoner’s right to take legal action is limited and there is little to no oversight of the market.
Private probation companies, euphemistically called “offender-funded justice,” serve to keep people in jail. The companies profit from loading probationers down with fees that often increase with penalties. The profit motive, combined with local governments strapped for cash, has returned a form of debtor’s prison not seen since the time of Charles Dickens.
At the same time, private video-conferencing companies have been busy lobbying County Supervisors to shut down face-to-face visitation rights in favor a webcam visits that will charge up to $1.50 per minute.
While privatizing support services, like food or laundry, might merely result in poor service, privatizing health care has been a disaster nationally because there is a built-in incentive to deny care to people in order to increase profits.
Jails Worse Than Prison
Most county jails, especially newer ones are built like a maximum-security prison. A state prison will have several “pods” built around a central yard. Small jails though are comprised of a single pod and inmates don’t have access to outside air and often are not allowed to meet face-to-face with visitors.
This type facility is expensive to build and maintain. Local governments always find money for bigger cages, but can’t seem to find the dollars to fund rehabilitation programs. Even diversions, other than television and a few torn books, are lacking.
“Send me to federal prison any day instead of jail,” said one former inmate who had spent time in both places. “The food is better in prison, the company is better and there are fewer fights.”
The figures bear him out. The federal Department of Justice is investigating Texas’ Harris County jail for the second time in just under six months because of an inmate’s death. Between 2001 and 2006, there were 101 inmate deaths in the county’s jails — and 72 of those had not been convicted of a crime.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Seeing jails as a profit-center started with Richard Nixon’s war on crime and drugs. On Nixon’s watch, sentencing practices, especially for nonviolent crimes, were stiffened. Reagan came along and made things tougher with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 which mandated minimum sentences. The law established a commission in charge of recommending uniform federal sentencing guidelines to promote fairness. Reagan stacked the commission with hardliners who put in place draconian rules calling for harsh sentences and took the ability of judge’s to use discretion and consider mercy away.
Because of Nixon’s and Reagan’s fiddling with the sentencing, rates of incarceration went from 166 per 100,000 in 1971 to 716 today — the highest in the world. Of the three levels of incarceration, local jail, state prison and federal prison, jails hold 750,000 people — more than triple the 200,000 held in federal prisons.
The average jail term is quite short which means that people are churned in and out of the system. The machine admits 12 million people to jail each year with many of those being mentally ill and money is what counts when it comes to deciding who gets stuck in jail.
Only one in ten people charged with a crime is detained because he or she is denied bail. The rest just cannot afford the bail set by the judge. In New York City in 2013, over 50 percent of jail inmates remained in jail because they couldn’t afford bail of $2500.00 or less. Over 30 percent of the non-felony defendants held on a bond of $500 or less couldn’t afford that comparatively small amount.
The result is the mass incarceration of people who are legally innocent. Of all the jail inmates, in all the country’s jails, over 61 percent have not been convicted of a crime.
Awfulness of Jail
Brutality and life in the country’s prison system are well known. Documented by media and Hollywood, prisons get all the attention. Jails are often just as bad — if not worse.
According to federal prisoners’ rights advocate Arkady Bukh, Riker’s Island has developed a reputation as a medieval place. It’s so draconian that federal prosecutors are planning to sue New York City over the facility. Riker’s isn’t the only facility to have been in the news about jail conditions..
The Los Angeles County jail system had been mired in controversy and scandal since 2011 when an ACLU report showed a mafia of corrupt deputies who routinely and violently abused prisoners.
Across the state line in Arizona, Maricopa County’s jail system was put on notice for inmate abuse, racial profiling and the illegal arrest of Latinos. Even Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio admitted to violating court orders to stop the systemic violence, profiling and illegal arrests.
Next door in New Mexico, a woman, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was kept in pretrial solitary confinement for over two years. The abuse of the woman resulted in Valencia County eventually forking over $1.6 million to settle her lawsuit.
As bad as those stories are, at least they got noticed. Smaller jails don’t often get the attention of local media — forget about national media. In Warren County, Kentucky, deputies confiscated the cash and personal checks of individuals admitted to the county lockup.
Since Kentucky law requires inmates to help cover the cost of their jail time, the jail’s officials would mark “Inmate Account” on the back of confiscated checks and deposit them into the local bank. Cash, once confiscated, was never returned. Kentucky attorney, Greg Belzley, says, “…the system to request one’s property and money back was so opaque that no one had ever even tried.”
Media can play a significant part in changing the system. Typically, it is only when scandals become public that lasting changes are made But media, by itself, doesn’t have enough power to monitor thousands of jails. The needed reforms ultimately depend on the winds of change within local jurisdictions. The majority of decision makers who have power over jail just don’t pay attention to the problems and available solutions.
At the end of the day, change has to come from political pressure because jails are a political institution.
Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist who has built his career covering social justice issues globally.