The State of Jails

A Shifting Landscape

American jails profoundly shape the economic and social landscape of communities across the country, but often operate outside public view, making them elusive targets for reform.

Historically, jails were meant to hold people only for a brief time: those who posed a serious risk of flight between their arrest and trial.[]Ram Subramanian, Christian Henrichson, and Jacob Kang-Brown, In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2015), 4. Today, however, America’s more than 3,000 local jails serve as the “front door” to mass incarceration, accounting for approximately 18 times more admissions than state or federal prisons each year.[]Ram Subramanian, Ruth Delaney, Stephen Roberts, Nancy Fishman, and Peggy McGarry, Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2015).

These jails are overwhelmingly filled with people held in pretrial detention—people who are presumed innocent but remain incarcerated while they await the resolution of their cases—primarily because they cannot pay bail.[]Color of Change and ACLU, $elling Off Our Freedom: How Insurance Corporations Have Taken Over Our Bail System (New York: ACLU, 2017), 6 & 9. Jails have also become a trap for the poor and too often a place to hold people with substance use and mental health disorders. And a small but growing number of beds in local jails are being reserved for the U.S. Marshals or agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).[]U.S. Marshal Service, Facts and Figures (Washington, DC: U.S. Marshal Service, 2018); Tanvi Misra, “Where Cities Help Detain Immigrants,” Citylab, July 10, 2018; and Jacob Kang-Brown and Ram Subramanian, Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017), 9.

Conditions in America’s jails can be dismal and chaotic—a state often exacerbated by overcrowding. In fact, 17 percent of U.S. jails are operating at or above 100 percent of their rated capacity.[]Zhen Zang, Jail Inmates in 2016 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018), 1. More people are dying in custody, and suicide remains the leading cause of death.[]Margaret Noonan, “Mortality in Local Jails, 2000-2014 - Statistical Tables” (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016). In response to crowding, aging facilities, and litigation surrounding the abysmal conditions of jails, many counties across the country are choosing to build new jails or renovate existing facilities, almost always adding beds in the process. In 2018, jail construction boomed quietly in smaller cities and rural communities, even as advocates and policymakers in bigger cities like St. Louis, New York, and Philadelphia pushed for downsizing the jail population and closing aging facilities.[]#CLOSErikers; Close the Workhouse; and Samantha Melamed, “Philly's House of Correction, a 'Dungeon,' to Close by 2020,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 18, 2018. Communities, judges, and lawmakers also focused on identifying and preventing the causes of death in jail.[]Joshua Rhett Miller, “Judge Vows To Only Send ‘Worst Of The Worst’ To Jail After Inmate Deaths,” New York Post, October 4, 2018; and Mark Shenefelt, “State Starts Work On Utah Jail Death Reports, Substance Abuse Study,” Daily Herald, June 27, 2018.

But the human impact and policy challenges of jails extend even beyond pretrial detention and conditions. Jails are increasingly functioning as de facto debtors’ prisons for people who cannot pay court fees or fines—or even, in some cases, private debts.[]For criminal justice fees, see Sarah van Gelder, “Yes, Lots of People Go to Jail Because They Can’t Pay a Fine,” Yes!, February 2, 2018; and “US: Private Probation Harming the Poor,” Human Rights Watch, February 20, 2018. For the ways private debt leads to incarceration see American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt (New York: ACLU, 2018). And avoiding a jail sentence or getting out of jail is no guarantee that a person will remain free: the overuse of probation and, to a much lesser extent, parole, which are revocable for even noncriminal conduct, has created a revolving door to incarceration.[]On community supervision as a driver of incarceration, see for example, Sara Satinsky, Logan Harris, Lili Farhang, and Gus Alexander, Excessive Revocations: The Health Impacts of Locking People up without a New Conviction in Wisconsin (Oakland, CA: Human Impact Partners, 2016), 13; and Vincent Schiraldi, The Pennsylvania Community Corrections Story (New York: Columbia University Justice Lab, 2018), 8 (half of individuals in Philadelphia jails in 2017 were detained on community supervision violations).

Top Things to Know

  1. America is in the midst of a jail construction boom.
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  2. Deaths in jail continue to make headlines—and suicide is on the rise.
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  3. U.S. jails have become de facto “debtor’s prisons.”
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  4. Probation and parole create revolving doors to incarceration.
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  5. Millions of eligible voters had no access to polls during this election year—because they were in jail.
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Facts and Figures

On Our Radar

  • Cities take a new look at closing old jails.
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  • Two counties vote to end Alabama’s “bonus” to sheriffs who cut costs on food for people in their jails.
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Best of 2018


Vera Staff

External Reviewers

  • Patrick Griffin
  • Wendy Sawyer