How Locales Are Filling Their Expensive New Jails

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Written by Ann Brown
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More and more locales are depending on prisons so they are building more jails instead of addressing the underlying reasons that lead to incarceration., experts say.

More and more locales are depending on prisons so they are building more jails instead of addressing the underlying reasons that lead to incarceration., experts say.

Take 2015 in rural Coffee County, Tennessee. The town’s jails were suffering from years of overcrowding. So it recently completed a brand new 400-bed jail. And after doing so, the local jail population then boomed, increasing a whopping more than 60 percent between April 2015 and April 2018. Coffee County is just one town in America that has seen increased incarcerations.

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The project cost $21 million to complete, not including the cost of maintaining or staffing the new facility.  This, in a community where 14 percent of residents are living below the poverty line.

“Coffee County’s story illuminates a troubling national phenomenon highlighted in our new report: As major cities decarcerate and close jails, smaller cities and rural communities are incarcerating people at higher and higher rates and investing heavily in jail expansion. Amid a decades-long decline in crime, this has created an uneven experience of incarceration across the urban-to-rural spectrum. There is an excess of empty beds in a small handful of places, with shocking overcrowding elsewhere. In 2017, there were far more jail beds available nationwide than people held in jail, yet one in five jails had a population at or above 100 percent of its rated capacity,” City Lab reported.

Increasingly, locales are using prisons as a way to “house” the poor, sick, and struggling yet such incarceration does not offer answers to these problems.

Many of these “jail facilities fail to provide minimal health care, often struggling to offer even the most basic medication or treatment to incarcerated people. And even well-intentioned correctional efforts are still correctional efforts: Confinement in a facility for which the primary aim remains control, surveillance, and punishment is antithetical to treatment goals,” City Lab reported.

Jails are not the solution, say experts. “Ultimately, counties cannot build their way out of crisis. Jail expansion alone fails to address the root causes of incarceration and overcrowding, leaving in place the very policies and practices that drove the jail’s population increase in the first place,” City Lab reported.