Outdated rural jails are packed, troubled

Tougher laws, sentences bring big-prison problems to nation's smaller

In every US state, jail crowding is a fact of life - and one that appears not to be eased by any amount of prison building.

But across the landscapes of rural America, the trend is claiming new territory: Small county jails, with antiquated and understaffed facilities, are packing in inmates like never before.

It's a situation that's veering toward crisis proportions, some say, with the potential for increased violence and health problems.

"We have more inmates coming into jails than ever before, and the vast majority of jails in the US are small rural jails," says Steve Ingley, of Hagerstown, Md., executive director of the American Jail Association. "If you're at 150 percent capacity, and your jail was built in 1900, and you have no new technology, how do you deal with that?"

In many cases, not very well, he says.

As tougher laws and mandatory sentences intersect with crumbling infrastructure and limited resources, the strain on jails is hitting unprecedented levels. A record number of Americans - some 2 million - are incarcerated. Yet while prisons - which generally house longer-term inmates - are funded at the state level, most of the nation's 3,201 county jails are paid for by local taxpayers. And for a growing number of counties, the cost of operating a jail is prohibitive.

In rural Costilla County, the poorest county in Colorado, the recent solution was to shut down the jail. The dilapidated 12-cell facility - last remodeled in 1964 - posed health and safety risks to inmates, and was chronically overcrowded.

"We don't have the tax base in the county to fund a jail," says Undersheriff Lou Pugliese. "We don't even have portable radios for our officers."

Now, the department drives its inmates 100 or more miles to jails in neighboring counties. "It puts a real strain on the department," he says.

Costilla County's troubles are not unique. Forty of Colorado's 62 counties struggle with the same problem.

"Jails have been required to do a lot more, with a whole lot less," says Mr. Ingley. "They have a huge responsibility, without the resources. If we're going to continue on this path of putting away people, we're going to have to deal with this."

Ingley says it's troubling that states leave the cost of running jails to local jursidictions.

Some states have recognized the problem. West Virginia and Kentucky have moved toward a system of regional jails that serve several counties. And other states are experimenting more with jail alternatives, such as home arrest and third-party custody.

Still, even as US crime rates fall, incarceration rates continue to climb. And the prison-building boom of the 1990s failed to make a significant dent in jail crowding. California has the largest corrections system in the country and spends more on prisons than on education. Yet the Los Angeles County Jail had to release 700 inmates in one day not long ago because of crowding.

With new cells costing upwards of $50,000 each, taxpayers are growing weary of paying for prison or jail beds. On the other hand, crowded jails are not without costs. With common areas converted to bunk rooms, lined with floor mattresses, and cells triple-bunked, jails become emotional pressure-cookers. Lacking updating, plumbing, heating, and ventilation systems have become overburdened or inadequate.

So have the prison staffs and their supervisors.

"Frustration and tensions begin to rise. And the staff may use excessive force in dealing with problems, because they are overextended," says Kara Gotsch, of the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington.

Legal avenues for improving conditions are limited. Legislation passed by Congress in 1996 makes it very difficult for inmates to sue, explains Ms. Gotsch. "We get 1,000 letters a month with complaints about conditions.

The toll on inmates is nonetheless real, says Lindsay Hayes, of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, in Mansfield, Mass. Suicide is the leading cause of death in rural jails; in county jails the suicide rate is 9-1/2 times greater than in the general population, he notes. "I believe that there is a direct correlation between the conditions of confinement and suicide," he says.

Complicating the issue is the fact that 15 states - Colorado is one - have neither state inspections nor compliance standards for jails. This raises likelihood of poor conditions, Mr. Hayes says.

Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director in Denver, is investigating charges of inhumane treatment at the La Plata county jail in Durango, Colo. Inmates reported being handcuffed and chained to a wall for six hours and shackled with leg irons to a floor ring.

La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard declined to comment on the allegations, but said overcrowding has made it difficult to maintain order and physical restraints are sometimes needed. The jail has a capacity of 88 inmates, yet routinely houses 130.

"Any time you cram people together that tight, tensions rise," he says.

The county, meanwhile, is trying to convince voters to approve a $14 million referendum to build a 250-bed jail. La Plata is a relatively well-to-do county, with a strong oil and gas industry, yet local taxpayers are conservative, says Sheriff Schirard. "A jail is a hard sell to the electorate. "

Even industry experts aren't convinced the answer lies in building jails."We need to be doing more prevention and treatment. We need to realize that this isn't all arrest and incarcerate," says Ingley. "There's more to the puzzle than that."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.