More cities are looking at closing their aging jail facilities. In 2016, Philadelphia embarked on an intensive initiative to reduce its jail population as part of the of the Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, a multiyear criminal justice reform effort launched by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.Jarrett Lyons, “Philly Gets Second MacArthur Grant to Cut Prison Population in Half,” WHYY, October 24, 2018.
At the time, Philadelphia had one of the largest jail populations of any major city in America—it has since seen a decline of 36 percent of the number of people in jail on a given day.Michaela Winberg, “Advocates: Closing the Dilapidated, Decaying House of Correction Isn’t Enough”, BillyPenn, April 19, 2018; and Lyons, “Philly Gets Second MacArthur Grant,” 2018.
Advocates in Philadelphia launched a campaign called #CLOSETheCreek to close the city’s House of Correction—informally known as “The Creek”—a jail built in 1874 and then rebuilt in 1927, which has no air conditioning or sprinkler system and no space for rehabilitative programming.Melamed, “Philly's House of Correction,” 2018.
Recently, the city announced it would close the facility in 2020 and has, since the summer, emptied the jail in preparation.Ibid.; and Philadelphia Department of Prisons, “Daily Census,” retrieved December 12, 2018 (showing a “HOC” population of 0).
But some advocates are concerned that the move is not enough: the city has announced that it will be maintaining the facility in case of a rebound in the incarcerated population.Winberg, “Closing the House of Correction,” 2018.
Activists in St. Louis are taking aim at another aging facility, the St. Louis Medium Security Institution.Celeste Bott, “Efforts Grow To Close 'Unspeakably Hellish' St. Louis Workhouse,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 13, 2018. Known as “The Workhouse”—a title rooted in the city’s history of imposing forced labor sentences on people who could not pay their fines—the current jail building was erected in 1966, is reportedly infested with mold and pests, and lacks air conditioning, even in St. Louis’s sweltering summers. “Why the Workhouse Must Be Closed,” closetheworkhouse.org; and “Medium Security Institution,” City of St. Louis. Proponents of closure say that 90 percent of people confined in the jail are awaiting trial and that the jail holds eight times as many black people as white people, even though barely half of the city’s population is black.“Why the Workhouse Must Be Closed.”
In San Francisco, activists and lawmakers agree that the Hall of Justice—a courthouse, office, and jail complex completed in 1960 that is San Francisco’s oldest working jail—should be replaced.Rachel Swan, “3 SF Supervisors Urge Closing Jails at Hall of Justice,” SFGate, June 13, 2017; and VerPlanck Historic Preservation Consulting, “San Francisco Hall of Justice Replacement Project,” 2015. But the question remains: with what? No jail at all would be the preference of the activists in No New SF Jail Coalition, which has asked city supervisors to invest the funds that would be used for a replacement jail into community resources instead.Bay City News Service, “Anti-Jail Group Urges Supervisors to Speed up Hall of Justice Closure,” October 22, 2018. Many, including San Francisco’s new mayor London Breed, agree that this would be the ideal solution—in fact, in 2016 Breed was one of the city supervisors who rejected an $80 million state grant for the construction of a new jail facility and created a work group instead to study alternatives.Bay City News Service, “Anti-Jail Group Urges Supervisors to Speed up Hall of Justice Closure,” October 22, 2018. But the problem remains of what to do with the 300 to 400 people housed in the seismically-unsafe, flood- and pest-prone jail on any given day.Holly McDede, “What Will It Take to Get Inmates Out of San Francisco's Aging Hall of Justice?” KALW, June 8, 2017. City officials have reiterated plans to close the facility in 2019, but no one seems to agree on what “closure” would look like.Melissa Gira Grant, “San Francisco Officials Wanted to Close a Dilapidated Jail by 2019. So Why Is It Still Open?,” The Appeal, December 14, 2018. Meanwhile, plans to close New York’s troubled Rikers Island may get a jumpstart from the New York Commission of Corrections, which says that the city has been unable to mitigate longstanding problems in the 10 jails that comprise the complex.Lisa Foderaro, “New York State May Move to Close Rikers Ahead of City’s 10-Year Timeline,” New York Times, February 14, 2018. In 2017, New York City officially announced that it would close Rikers Island and instead create smaller, borough-based facilities in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn.Lisa Foderaro, “New York State May Move to Close Rikers Ahead of City’s 10-Year Timeline,” New York Times, February 14, 2018. However, that announcement did not mollify the Commission of Correction, which, citing an increase in violent incidents and the protracted timeline the city has proposed—a 10-year shutdown—stated in a 70-page report in February that it plans to “examine steps to expeditiously close Rikers and to ensure that the constitutional rights of inmates and staff are protected.”Ibid.; and New York State Commission of Correction, The Worst Offenders: The Most Problematic Local Correctional Facilities of New York State (New York: New York State Commission of Correction, 2018).