Why Are There So Many People in Jail in Scranton, PA?

Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Valley has been a key site of struggle for national electoral politics for many years. Joe Biden was born in Scranton, a fact made famous in the 2012 Vice Presidential debate. Hillary Clinton’s father, Hugh Rodham, was born and raised in Scranton, a biographical detail that was emphasized by the Clinton campaign both in the 2008 primary and in the 2016 general election. Donald Trump campaigned intensively in Scranton, and it was one of the last places he visited before Election Day. The valley, and its history, helps to illustrate the sort of majority-white, deindustrialized, blue-collar counties that are often overlooked when considering not only politics at large but criminal justice reform in particular.

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Once a booming center of iron and steel production, the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania has tried to reinvent itself as a tourist destination, and has struggled to keep from falling into municipal bankruptcy in the face of de-industrialization. With its brick downtown buildings set against the long, low ridges of the Pocono Mountains, Scranton—“the Electric City”—is the main population center of Lackawanna County, a former coal county, and sits in the northeastern corner of the state. Like most other small, blue-collar cities in the Rust Belt, Scranton has experienced continued economic ups and downs—and skyrocketing incarceration rates.

In fact, Lackawanna County has one of the highest jail incarceration rates in Pennsylvania, higher than any county in the state besides Philadelphia, and higher than any county in New York, New Jersey, or anywhere in New England. In 1970, the rate of people locked up in the Lackawanna County jail was 46 for every 100,000 residents aged 15 to 64—slightly less than half the rate for the state of Pennsylvania as a whole. (All incarceration rates are presented per 100,000 residents aged 15 to 64.) In 2014, the rate of people locked up in the Lackawanna County jail was roughly 698 for every 100,000 residents, more than twice the national rate. If we include people who were sent to state prison from the county in these numbers, the combined jail and prison incarceration rate for Lackawanna County was 1,531 people per 100,000 residents in 2014. By way of comparison, the combined jail and prison incarceration for New York City—the largest city of the most incarcerated country on the planet—was 608 per 100,000 in 2014.

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Yet Scranton is by no means anomalous. Small cities and rural counties have been driving jail incarceration across the country, according to In Our Own Backyard, a recent Vera report. The number of people held in local jails on any day in the United States has increased four-fold since 1970. While the jail incarceration rate in large counties (with more than one million residents) has grown almost three-fold during this period, the jail incarceration rate in small counties (with fewer than 250,000 residents) increased almost seven-fold. The jail incarceration rate of Lackawanna County, a small county with a population of 213,000, increased by more than 15 times between 1970 and 2014, with racial disparities in incarceration that are both egregious and indicative of uneven incarceration rates in small counties across the country.

Ninety-two percent of Lackawanna County’s population is white, mostly descendants of Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrants who came to the area around the turn of the 20th century to work in the coal, steel, and iron industries. The jail incarceration rate for these residents was 494 per 100,000 people in 2014. However, the rate of incarceration for black people, who made up 2.5 percent of the population in 2010, was 6,145 per 100,000 in 2014—or 6 of every 100. That’s six times the rate of incarceration for the state of Pennsylvania that year, which was 1,407 per 100,000. Latino people make up 5 percent of the population of Lackawanna County, and were incarcerated at a rate of 1,610 per 100,000 in the county, more than three times the rate for white people. 

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Women have been unequally affected by the overuse of jails, especially in small counties. According to a recent report from Vera, the number of women incarcerated in small counties has increased 31-fold between 1970 and 2014. In Lackawanna County, that rate has risen 38-fold in this same period. 

When I went to Scranton, very few people I spoke with were surprised by the high incarceration rates in the county, whether they were directly impacted by the system themselves or were simply county residents. One man, who has cycled in and out of the Lackawanna County jail a couple of times over the past few years for minor drug offenses, tried to impress upon me the ease to which one might be incarcerated in Scranton. 

“[Some judges here] send people to jail all day long,” he said. “Miss a drug meeting? 30 days. Late on a child support payment? 30 days.” 

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One Latina woman, who was in town from Upstate New York visiting her brother, explained that she is always fearful of being arrested in Scranton. “[The police] pull people over and arrest them for whatever they can here, especially people of color,” she said. According to the 2015 Vera report, Incarceration’s Front Door, black people are jailed at four times the rate of white people nationally. In Lackawanna County, black people are jailed at more than 12 times the rate of white people.

 “There’s not a crime problem to speak of,” one small business owner said. “Just a lot of poverty and inequality […] There are a lot of drugs, a lot of people breaking orders of protection, which the police give out like candy, but not much violent crime.”

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It’s true that Scranton’s crime rate is not extraordinarily high. The violent crime rate in 2015 was 274 per 100,000 residents, which was 27 percent lower than the U.S. violent crime rate, and relatively low for Pennsylvania. For example, it is much less than half the rate for Lancaster, Pennsylvania (796 per 100,000). Scranton’s property crime rate, however, was fairly high for the state—at 2,779 per 100,000, it was 12 percent higher than the overall U.S. property crime rate.

When I spoke with a deputy sheriff, he speculated that the high incarceration rate “probably had to do with drugs.” He said, “There are signs of an increase in prisoner amounts related to heroin and prescription drug abuse.” According to a report from The Citizens Voice, heroin arrests increased from 100 in 2008 to 300 in 2013.

Income inequality, unemployment, and poverty are visible in Scranton’s landscape of abandoned industrial buildings and empty storefronts. In 2015, the poverty rate was 24.5 percent—higher than the statewide rate of 13.2 percent for that same year. 

This may in part be attributed to the 64 percent drop in manufacturing employment in Scranton between 1989 and 2015, a period in which the Scranton metropolitan area lost 16,175 industrial jobs. Service providers in Scranton talk of deepening poverty and chronic underemployment as the new normal in the city. In 2015, more than a third of all children in Scranton were living in poverty. 

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These issues—increased poverty, racial bias, and skyrocketing rates of drug use—help paint the picture not only of the county’s increased rate of incarceration, but of an increasing culture of incarceration. With the constant flow of people behind bars becoming a fact of everyday life, it seems that jail has become one of the answers to de-industrialization—that is, an expanded jail has become an opportunity to generate revenue and create jobs in the county.  

In 1998 and 1999, after years of industrial decline in Scranton, and during a reorientation towards a tourist economy that included a revitalized downtown, the Lackawanna County jail underwent a major renovation that increased its capacity. In the opinion of the Lackawanna County deputy warden, the renovation was done in part to take advantage of potential influxes of state and federal prisoners: what he called “paying customers,” because the county received money from other agencies—such as the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons—for every day these people were locked up in the county jail system. On the day we spoke, there were 281 such incarcerated people at the jail, out of a total of 897. One hundred and thirty three of these “customers” were state inmates, usually people who had violated their parole, while 114 of them were federal prisoners being held for the U.S. Marshalls.

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“There are five federal prisons within a two-hour drive [from Scranton],” the warden said. “When [federal prisoners] commit another crime, the feds bring them down here.” This is because a federal courthouse is just down the street from the jail and when an incarcerated person commits another crime in prison, they are “knocked back down to pre-trial status.”  

Last year, these “paying customers” offset the Lackawanna County jail budget by approximately $5 million, which can be anywhere from a quarter to a third of the budget. In other words, Lackawanna County’s large and relatively new jail—the jail that makes possible the county’s extremely high incarceration rates—is subsidized by the state and federal governments. Rather than producing real economic development, however, the expanded jail seems only to have provided ample space—and new incentives to fill it—for an over-active justice system in an impoverished city. While federal prisoners incarcerated in Scranton are not counted in the jail incarceration rates for the county, their presence, and the planning for their incarceration, is still related to investment in imprisonment at the county level. 

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Private industry has been leaving Scranton for decades, while at the same time, the county, state, and federal governments have been spending more and more money on locking people up in the Lackawanna County jail, allowing the county to hire more and more correctional officers. In 1970 there were 24 people working at the Lackawanna County jail. In 1999, before the completion of the jail expansion, there were 77. In 2013, after the jail was completed, there were 170.

While there is only one Scranton, there are many places like it. Small and medium sized counties across the Northeast and the Midwest have experienced simultaneous deindustrialization and hyper-incarceration at the local level.

Many of these counties have also expanded their jails while taking advantage of the revenue generated by boarding people from other counties, from the state level, or from an increase in federal immigrant detention. For example, Montgomery County, New York, a small county in the Mohawk Valley, has the highest jail incarceration rate in the state. The population in Amsterdam, the major city in the county, has declined nearly 30 percent since 1970, as industry left the area.

If ending mass incarceration is one of the most serious challenges of our time, it becomes increasingly important that we understand why places like Lackawanna County are spending so much time, money, and human potential locking its people in jail. 

The Human Toll of Jail is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge.