Back to Nothing: Prisoner Reentry and the ‘Virtual City’ of the Disenfranchised

On an average day in an average year, around 1,700 people are released from federal penitentiaries and state prisons. The odds of successfully reintegrating into civilian life are stacked against most of them, says a California researcher.

On an average day in an average year, around 1,700 people are released from federal penitentiaries and state prisons, back into the poor and segregated neighborhoods from which they were forcefully removed months, years, or decades earlier.

They join what amounts to a mid-sized city, with a population that grew by 626,000 just in 2016, that does not appear on any map of the United States. The residents of this “virtual city” are scattered across the country, but they share some important characteristics.

Many are Black or Latino/a, and the vast majority are poor, unemployed, modestly educated, insecurely housed, politically disenfranchised, affected by some physical or mental illness, and exposed to heavy surveillance by a range of law enforcement agencies.

All have criminal records—a state-sanctioned stigma that normalizes their status as second-class citizens and de facto legitimizes their discrimination by employers, welfare officers, lenders, landlords, and neighbors, among others.

This is the ongoing reality of prisoner reentry in the U.S., a social emergency largely ignored by mainstream society and its media.

In an attempt to document the multiple forms of social suffering endured by these returning citizens, I conducted ethnographic research into one population group of that “city” between 2011 and 2014: a group of formerly incarcerated men who had been recently released from prison and were facing the challenge of reintegrating into a racially segregated neighborhood in West Oakland, CA.

The entry point into the field was provided by a community clinic situated in the heart of West Oakland, which provided free basic healthcare services to poor residents of the area. In addition, the non-profit organization that ran the clinic offered some volunteer and employment opportunities as staff members to a small number of recently released prisoners.

During the years of fieldwork, I developed close relationships with 15-20 people. All of them were either African-American or Latino men, mostly in their 40s, with long histories of confinement in juvenile facilities, jails, prisons, and federal penitentiaries. Their most frequent convictions were for drug-related crimes.

For three years I shadowed these men while they looked for jobs, applied for social services, hunted for affordable housing, battled their addictions, became homeless, slept in their cars, tried to obtain a driver’s license, lost their jobs, were rearrested, and released again.

During those months I gave them rides to the welfare office, waited in line with them at the DMV, picked them (and sometimes their partners) up from jail, sat next to them while they were panhandling in the parking lots of local supermarkets, gave them money when they were penniless and bought them groceries when their fridges were empty.

Many of the individuals released from incarceration are not fortunate enough to be picked up at the prison gates by some friend or relative. So when they are discharged—often in the middle of the night—at the closest bus station, with a bag of clothes and a few dollars of “gate money” as their only possessions, they’re on their own.

derelict building

West Oakland, CA. Photo by De Giorgi

Back on the street, sheltered in some halfway house when not homeless, they must struggle to survive, either in the secondary labor market as low-wage, part-time, disposable workers, or more often in the underground economy as chronically unemployed hustlers, recyclers, and panhandlers.

A large number of them face this lonely struggle for daily subsistence at the same time as they cope with severe psychological traumas, long-term addictions, and of course the looming threat of reincarceration if they violate any condition of their parole.

The initial goal of my research was to study prisoner reentry. I expected to return from my fieldwork documenting an extensive network of (post) carceral control, ongoing surveillance, aggressive policing, unrealistic parole and probation conditions, and that these intrusive penal technologies would emerge as the main obstacles to the successful reintegration of former prisoners.

Such a network has been well-described in recent criminological literature, notably by Alice Goffman in “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City,” and by Victor Rios in “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.” These books, and others, document the struggles faced by hyper-criminalized populations as they attempt to disentangle themselves from the tenacious grip of the state’s penal powers.

Instead, during my three years in the field I ended up documenting widespread public neglect, institutional indifference, and programmatic abandonment of these marginalized populations by both the social and penal arms of the state.

Darryl, one of the men I interviewed during my research, offered a powerful assessment of the widespread economic abandonment people face when coming out of prison:

One thing that we face as being African-Americans and living in an inner-city neighborhood is coming back to this neighborhood being rehabilitated, changing our life and doing stuff different, and at the same time have to deal with the same type of economic issues that we dealt with before we left […]. We have no opportunity where we lay our heads. […]. So this is one of the challenges that we face: we come back to nothing. We left from nothing and we’re back to it.

Darryl’s case was not isolated.

Besides lacking access to any employment opportunities, most people were unable to receive any form of welfare assistance—either because none was available or because they were “ineligible” as a consequence of the many welfare bans attached to their convictions. A lifetime ban on food stamps eligibility for felony drug offenders was introduced as part of the 1996 welfare reform.

Since 2015 the ban on food stamps and some other benefits has been lifted in California. Nonetheless, many people with criminal records don’t apply, often because they are simply unaware of their entitlement to these limited benefits, and in some cases because they have pending issues with the criminal justice system (such as unpaid child support) that make them wary of providing identification to any public official.

West Oakland

West Oakland, CA. Photo by De Giorgi

As for subsidized housing, at the time of the study the Housing Authority of the County of Alameda was not accepting applications for Section 8. The only way to get into the wait list for public housing was through a lottery system that has been closed since 2015. In any case, applicants can still be discretionally screened out due to prior criminal convictions, particularly if drug related.

Of course, besides housing, the most urgent need people face upon release is access to cash for the basic necessities of life; but the only cash allowance available to single men is General Assistance: a county-level emergency program that offers a maximum of 336 dollars per month, for a maximum of 3 months per year.

However, it would be misleading to even consider this as welfare assistance, since GA is considered a loan, and its prospective recipients must sign a reimbursement agreement as a condition of eligibility.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the incapacitating and disempowering effects of mass incarceration were absent from the experiences of the people I followed, but rather that those effects were magnified by the state’s retraction from (as much as presence in) the lives of returning prisoners.

Indeed, I observed the emergence in the postindustrial ghetto of a low-intensity model of urban containment of surplus populations largely devolved to what Jennifer Wolch has defined as the “shadow state”: a barely coordinated network of actors including nonprofit agencies, faith-based organizations, rehabilitation centers, transitional housing programs, etc.

These private or semi-private entities are charged with the low-cost management not only of former prisoners, but also of the variously disenfranchised populations inhabiting the urban margins—mentally ill individuals, homeless people, drug addicts, chronically unemployed men and women, etc.

They operate under a neoliberal model of social governance, in which market-friendly solutions are systematically devised as the only response to a broad range of structural issues faced by former prisoners and other marginalized populations. Thus, so called reentry services usually offer plenty of resume-preparation sessions, job interview workshops, anger management classes, computer literacy courses, rehab and group counseling programs—but much less in terms of affordable housing, free health care, accessible education, or a basic income.

This model of service provision is perfectly consistent with the neoliberal ideology of free choice, individual responsibility, and personal change that is inculcated into criminalized populations at every step of their journey through the US carceral state, from arrest to release.

In other words, whether they sleep in a bed or in a car, have a job or push a cart, have access to medications or go untreated, their reentry process is considered successful as long as they don’t commit any crimes.

A good case in point here is Ray, a 49-year-old African American who was released from prison in 2010, after serving 11 years for a violent crime.

While on parole, Ray kept struggling with alcohol dependence and used crystal meth and other drugs on a regular basis. Since he was homeless, for almost one year he slept with his girlfriend in a car that was parked in the rear of the fast food restaurant where Ray worked during the day.

Throughout my time in the field, Ray’s addictions were essentially ignored by his parole officer as long as Ray maintained a crime-free lifestyle. As for his homeless status, the officer reassured Ray that living in the car was OK, as long as he notified the parole officer whenever he decided to move the car to some other location (something Ray had to do frequently in order to avoid parking tickets).

It should therefore not be surprising that—despite the dreadful conditions of neglect and abuse endemic to the US prison system—penal institutions now represent one of the few remaining sources of public relief to the poor in the postindustrial ghetto. After all, even as living conditions in prisons keep spiraling down due to chronic overcrowding, ongoing state violence, and punitive deprivations, prisoners must nonetheless be granted access to food, shelter, and sporadic health care.

Formerly incarcerated people are aware of this, and it was not uncommon for me to hear the people I followed say that their material standards of living had deteriorated since their return to “freedom.”

Alessandro De Giorgi

Alessandro De Giorgi

In light of this, the recent mainstream campaigns for penal reform, some of which are inspired by budget concerns rather than by any public reckoning with the social suffering imposed upon criminalized populations, signal the intention of the nation’s power elites to defund even prisons, since these have become the residual providers of (carceral) welfare services to America’s racialized poor.

As long as living conditions at the bottom of the US racial and class hierarchy will be characterized by widespread economic destitution, institutional abandonment, and public neglect, “prisoner reentry” will be little more than a self-absolutory figure of speech, and formerly incarcerated people will keep coming back to nothing.

Alessandro De Giorgi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Justice Studies, San Jose State University. He is the author of “Rethinking the Political Economy of Punishment: Perspectives on Post-Fordism and Penal Politics” (Ashgate, 2006). An overview of the findings from this research can be found in the article “Back to Nothing: Prisoner Reentry and Neoliberal Neglect” published in Social Justice 44(1): 83–120. For some ethnographic snapshots from the field, see the blog series “Reentry to Nothing: Urban Survival After Mass Incarceration,” published online in the Social Justice blog. He welcomes comments from readers.


Jail Populations Keep Falling, Down 11.2% in 8 Years

The percentage of U.S. residents in jail dropped 3.4 percent from midyear 2012 to midyear 2016, says U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. County and city jails held 740,700 inmates at midyear 2016, far below the peak of 785,500 in 2008.

The percentage of U.S. residents in jail dropped 3.4 percent from midyear 2012 to midyear 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported  on Thursday. The jail incarceration rate fell from 237 inmates per 100,000 residents at midyear 2012 to 229 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents at midyear 2016. The incarceration rate fell 11.2 percent from midyear 2008, when there were 258 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, to midyear 2016.

County and city jails held 740,700 inmates at midyear 2016. This was below the peak of 785,500 inmates in 2008, the year with the most jail inmates since 1982, when the agency began its annual jail survey. In 2016, jails reported 10.6 million admissions, continuing a steady decline since 2008, when there were 13.6 million. On average, those admitted to jail in 2016 stayed 25 days. At the end of 2016, 65 percent of those in jail were not convicted of an offense but were awaiting court action on a current charge. The remaining 35 percent were sentenced offenders or convicted offenders awaiting sentencing. Nearly 7 in 10 inmates were held in jail on felony charges, while 1 in 4 were held for misdemeanor offenses.

The rate at which people were held in local jails varied widely by racial and ethnic groups. At year-end 2016, non-Hispanic blacks (599 per 100,000 black U.S. residents) had the highest jail incarceration rate, followed by American Indian or Alaska Natives (359 per 100,000 American Indian or Alaska Natives residents). Hispanics (185 per 100,000 Hispanic residents) and non-Hispanic whites (171 per 100,000 white residents) were incarcerated in jails at a similar rate at year-end 2016. Blacks were incarcerated in jail at a rate 3.5 times that of whites at year-end 2016. This was down from 5.6 times the rate in 2000.


Justice Success Story: How Illinois Cut Its Prison Population

The sentencing overhaul championed by Gov. Bruce Rauner has already cut inmate numbers by 7,000. But reforms at the county level, influencing who goes to prison in the first place, have been a critical ingredient in the state’s success—and could be a model for jurisdictions elsewhere.

As states grapple with persistently high incarceration numbers, with more than two million people still in prisons and jails nationwide, the main focus has been on the back end of the justice system: reducing the time inmates stay behind bars.

Some reformers are urging a similar focus on the front end: incarcerating fewer people in the first place.

One state that is trying to do both, with some success, is Illinois.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has set an ambitious goal of cutting the prison rolls 25 percent by 2025. Illinois’ incarcerated population jumped from fewer than 10,000 inmates three decades ago to more than 48,000 in 2015—the nation’s eighth largest state inmate total. Providing cells, food, medical care and other services costs taxpayers $1.3 billion annually.

Under Rauner’s policies, the state has already cut that number by almost 7,000.

If prison is the caboose of the criminal justice train for offenders, the local criminal justice system is the engine, the place where decisions are made on who goes to prison.

A Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform appointed by Rauner urged that local criminal justice officials focus on collaborative polices that would better control state incarceration numbers.

One of the first Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils (CJCC) was started in central Illinois’ McLean County in 2011 to address chronic overcrowding at the county jail.

At the time, McLean ranked highest among the state’s 20 largest counties in its rate of sending drug defendants to state prison, with a total of 92.1 per 100,000 residents, according to Malcolm C. Young, former Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, who studied variations in crime and arrest rates and commitments to state prisons among Illinois counties when he directed a program on prison reentry strategies at the Bluhm Legal Clinic of Northwestern University.

The McLean coordinating council, comprising elected and appointed policy makers, community members, attorneys, and law enforcement officials, met around the same table for the first time to examine the strengths and shortcomings of the local system.

“The CJCC erased the boundaries between the departments as we all worked together for the overall criminal justice system,” former County Sheriff Mike Emery, who helped initiate new policies to prune the jail population, said in a recent interview. Emery did not seek re-election in 2014 and now is law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Springfield, Illinois.

Emery started the practice of letting judges and other decision makers know when his jail was nearing capacity, putting more emphasis on the possible release of low-level offenders at bond hearings. The decision of who would be released remained with judges, but the sheriff’s alert added jail population to the court’s list of considerations.

Defendants’ participation in a pre-trial release program allowed them to build a record of conduct for use later in their cases, he said.

The pre-trial release reports “gave judges more options than incarceration,” when it came to sentencing, he added.

Before the reform measures, inmates who were unable to pay as little as $100 to be released on bail sat for months while their cases moved slowly through the court system.

Mike Emery

Former McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery, who helped establish the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Photo by Lori Ann Cook-Neisler/The Pantagraph

In one of his first alerts to the chief judge, Emery pointed out that ten inmates were in jail on ordinance violations— the lowest form of criminal conduct. Now defendants on such infractions and similar non-violent offenses require only their agreement to appear for future court dates to avoid a jail stay, a major change in previous policy.

Data compiled by the McLean County justice council has since documented major changes in the jail population that reflect changes in both the number of inmates and the composition of the jail’s population.

By 2015, as jail usage began to tip significantly towards serious felony defendants, the total bed days for low-level felonies and misdemeanors—a measurement of overnight stays—were down an average of about 30 percent compared with 2007.

The county’s crime rate was also decreasing during this period, and police agencies have reported fewer arrests this year. The county’s total of 1,462 felony cases filed in 2016 was slightly below the previous year but generally were up since 2011, when about 1,100 felonies were charged.

The shift in McLean County to using the county jail mostly for holding defendants charged with the most severe offenses is a likely contributor to the lower numbers sent to state prison, David Olson, co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, Policy and Practice at Loyola University in Chicago,who served on Rauner’s commission, said in an interview.

“We know from research that if people are not detained pre-trial, their chances of going to prison are less,” Olson said.

The ability to remain out of jail while a case is pending allows people to keep their jobs, take care of their families and, in some cases, begin efforts to address mental health and substance issues that may have contributed to their offenses. Defendants also have greater opportunity to meet with their lawyers and assist with their defense when they are not sitting in jail.

Illinois Adult Redeploy, a state program that grants funds to community-based county-level services, provides financial incentives for counties to divert people from prison by keeping them in the community. It also played a part in reducing the number of defendants McLean County sends to state prisons each year. The state program returns money to communities to invest in local efforts in exchange for reducing the number of people sent to prison.

There also has been a policy shift towards probation as the preferred disposition in non-violent criminal cases. The move to provide defendants with several chances to succeed before sending them to prison has the support of all levels of the local justice system, including the judiciary, whose representatives serve on the council.

Cassy Taylor, director of McLean County Court Services and a member of the council, said in an interview the collaboration between local and state agencies “creates data-driven decision making, so we are making smart decisions with the resources we have.”

The result, added said Taylor, is an agreement on what she terms “the philosophy of community corrections.”

The preliminary results of these changes have been promising, according to data compiled recently by The Pantagraph from local circuit court records. Between 2011 and 2016, there was a steady decrease in the percentage of convicted defendants from McLean County sentenced to state prison. In 2011, 42 percent went to prison and 57 percent were put on probation. By 2016, 29 percent of convicted felons were sent to prison and 70 percent went on probation.

In all, state prison admissions from the country dropped from 385 in 2011 to 293 in 2016, court data showed.

Loyola’s Olson has been studying the impact of local criminal justice councils on justice systems in five Illinois communities, including McLean County.

The reduction in the number of McLean defendants heading to prison is indicative of what collaboration can accomplish, said Olson. “You’ve got this drop in admissions to prisons because in part they’re using prison less as a sanction,” he said.

prison population

Redeploy Illinois helped Kenneth Williams get back on his feet in 2013 following legal problems. The program offers financial incentives to counties in return for keeping offenders in community-based programs instead of prison. Photo by David Proeber/The Pantagraph

Almost seven years after it started, the McLean County council is still going strong. At its mid-January meeting in the local government center, members reviewed a report on the numbers of mentally ill people booked into the jail.

The broad base of knowledge developed by the council since its inception on the inner workings of the criminal justice system supports robust discussion on what the numbers mean—something that was not possible before 2011.

Illinois officials hope that four other counties that have created local criminal justice counties with the help of the state will have results similar to McLean County’s.

The local councils are just one ingredient in Illinois’ effort to cut its prison population.

Another is a sentencing reform law that that went into effect Jan. 1. Several provisions allow defendants who violate conditions of probation to be jailed locally instead of going to state prison. Another section provides that cases of minor offenders who would normally spend about nine months in state prison remain in counties instead, under probation supervision.

The law also allows state prison officials to give “supplemental sentencing credits” that offer an expanded group of inmates reduced prison stays for taking part in rehabilitation programs behind bars.

Finally, the law repealed mandatory prison terms for selected offenses, many of them drug crimes.

James Austin, a consultant based in Washington, D.C. and California who has studied the Illinois correctional system, estimates that the law’s provisions will reduce the state prison rolls by between 5,000 and 7,000, depending on how it is implemented across the state.

Overall, Austin says, the prison total could drop to 35,400 by 2024, a 27 percent reduction under Rauner’s governorship.

The new Illinois law was termed “unique” by Lenore Anderson, president of the national Alliance for Safety and Justice, which advocates for survivors of crime, because it combines state-level and local reforms and adds new aid for crime victims.

“This is a model that other states should take a look at,” she said.

The Illinois reforms also got national recognition when the state was one of the first three chosen to take part in an ongoing National Criminal Justice Reform Project sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) and the National Governors Association (NGA) to promote system-wide criminal justice reform that requires on evidence-based policies.

“Illinois’ work provides a good example of how states can better support and partner with local entities to address crime and strengthen public safety,” says NCJA’s Tammy Woodhams.

Much criminal justice reform in recent years has been focused exclusively on governors and state legislatures, who have the power to set maximum prison terms and to have much control over the amount of time prisoners end up spending behind bars.

Young, who studied Illinois counties’ justice practices, said that “all criminal justice is local,” adding that justice policies are “highly individualized among localities,” and that “extensive variations in government responses demonstrate the significant part local discretion and preference play in determining how criminal justice resources, including prison incarceration, are allocated.”

Eric Cadora, of the New York City-based Justice Mapping organization, originated the term “justice reinvestment” that is now used as shorthand for cutting prison populations and using the money saved for providing services to offenders.

Cadora welcomes state-level reforms but says that local criminal justice systems like those in McLean County also should be a key source of changes.

“Local jurisdictions are in a unique position to share the risk for … substantial reform efforts because they are more directly accountable for both the potential costs and benefits associated with the impact of such reforms on their constituents,” he said.

This story is jointly published as a partnership between The Pantagraph and The Crime Report. Edith Brady-Lunny covers crime and justice affairs for The Pantagraph in Bloomington, Il., and is a former John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. They welcome comments from readers.


U.S. Imprisonment Rate Down 11% Since 2008 Peak

Thirty-six states have reduced imprisonment rates since 2008, including declines of 15 percent or more in 20 states from diverse regions, says the Pew Charitable Trusts.

After peaking in 2008, the U.S. imprisonment rate fell 11 percent over eight years, reaching its lowest level since 1997, write Adam Gelb and Jacob Denney of the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project. The decline from 2015 to 16 was 2 percent, mostly because of a drop in federal prisoners. The rate at which black adults are imprisoned declined 29 percent over the past decade. The ongoing decrease in imprisonment has occurred alongside long-term reductions in crime, the Pew writers say. Since 2008, the combined national violent and property crime rate dropped 23 percent.

On prisons, 36 states have reduced imprisonment rates since 2008, including declines of 15 percent or more in 20 states from diverse regions, such as Alaska, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Connecticut. Almost every state recorded a crime decrease with no apparent correlation to imprisonment. Across the 45 states with crime drops from 2008-16, imprisonment rate changes ranged from a 35 percent decrease to a 14 percent increase. The violent crime rate increased nationally in 2015 and 2016, but many cities are reporting reductions for 2017. Both violent and total crime rates remain near record lows. National, state, and local crime rates change for what Gelb and Denny call “complex and poorly understood reasons.” Overall, rates of reported violent and property crime have declined by more than half since 1991 peaks, falling to levels not seen since the late 1960s. Starting with Texas in 2007, more than 30 states have changed sentencing and corrections practices, aiming at improving public safety and controlling costs.


Doing ‘Hard Time’ in the Nation’s Jails

A Kansas professor took his political science students on visits to a state correctional facility and a local county jail, and discovered that for all the criticism about American prisons, jail inmates suffer even harsher conditions—aggravated by the lack of oversight and transparency.

Before I had thought much about the distinction between jails and prisons, a local prosecutor suggested that I take my political science students to El Dorado Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison located about 45 minutes northeast of Wichita.

We applied to the Kansas Department of Corrections and toured the facility in April 2016.

I initially thought that the experience of going behind the concertina wire might help students understand the severity of conditions in American prisons. Instead, we were more impressed by the truth of something we had been told at the local county jail.

During three separate visits to Cowley County Jail in November 2014, October 2015, and November 2016, we were told that jail time is “hard time” in comparison to incarceration in a state prison.

It hardly seemed possible.

But county jails have less bureaucratic oversight, smaller numbers of offenders and closer supervision of them, fewer programs, and less connection to the outside through contact visitations.

Jails acclimate inmates to incarceration, which explains the need for some disciplinary harshness; however, there is little incentive for short-timers to comply with the rules. (The last point is made by the Sheriff’s assistant in New Orleans. I spoke to him about the jail in September, 2016.)

An examination of prison and jail conditions has become even more imperative in recent days in Kansas. Since we visited El Dorado, its staff turnover rate has been the highest of all facilities within the state’s correctional system. According to reporting by the Topeka Capital-Journal, El Dorado’s staff turnover rate from summer 2016 to summer 2017 is an astonishing 46 percent.

The prison had several inmate disturbances in May-June 2017, resulting in a prolonged lockdown; the facility is double-bunked, and some wings are over capacity; the staff has been working 12-hour shifts since July under a declared staffing emergency; and its warden has been transferred.

El Dorado prison

El Dorado prison. Photo courtesy Kansas Dept of Corrections

Our visit to El Dorado uncovered some of the causes of this summer’s disturbances. Our jail visits also revealed subtle problems with the incarceration of those awaiting trial or serving short sentences. It is crucial for the public to be familiar with these problems, and useful to pinpoint some of the ways in which even modern, well-run jails make incarceration feel like “hard time.”

Eight Points of Comparison

1. Architecture

El Dorado

El Dorado Correction Facility, Kansas. Photo by Chris Barker

The first appearance of El Dorado is daunting. Tower 1, located in the visitor parking lot, provides a commanding view of vehicular traffic. In the interior yard, tumbleweed-like loops of wire are piled up higher than one’s head.

This mile-long “Israeli” fence was built by guards working alongside inmates after a 2007 prison break, when two inmates escaped with the help of an ex-officer. Five pounds of pressure on the wire sets off an alarm, and a few more pounds of pressure detaches the wire, which wraps around any object—say, a hand or foot―making contact with it.

Cowley County Jail. Courtesy Cowley County

Opened in 2008, Cowley County’s jail is an expensive new-generation jail that boasts increased interaction between inmates and staff. (On one visit, we spent several minutes watching as a guard deliberately engaged in conversation with several offenders, individually and in small groups, in one of the pods.) The jail houses between 80-100 inmates, with a capacity of 220, in seven pods. The population varies, depending in part on whether offenders from other counties are housed.

Most astonishing to us is that the jail does not have an outdoor yard. During exercise time, which is one hour per week, inmates use an empty pod, equipped with a basketball hoop raised two feet above standard to discourage dunking and hard fouls.

There is no exercise equipment. The pod has a garage door-type wall above the hoop that can be raised to let in indirect light and some outside air. But it is hardly enough air or light. To be fair, it is even more claustrophobic inside the panoptical guard tower, a one-room glassed-in control room that serves as the central nervous system of the different pods.

In this respect, El Dorado is completely different. The prison has an indoor gym with weights and a basketball court (although the ball is not fully inflated); ironically, inmates occupied the gym during the summer’s uprising. We were told on our visit that offenders have been allowed to play softball and soccer on the “back forty” since 2001, but I was more recently told that housing reconfigurations have ended these usages.

2. Housing

El Dorado’s medium-security U-dorm houses 116 model inmates in an open-concept room divided into cubicles rather than cells. Offenders in U-dorm have jobs and no disciplinary reports within the prior year. (Minimum security offenders awaiting transfer are also temporarily housed here.) When offenders are accepted into U-dorm, they begin in four-man cubicle areas and graduate to two-man bunking areas.

U-dorm is air-conditioned (with very loud blowers) and heated, and offenders have access to extended day room hours and the yard, plus perks such as microwaves. The cell block that we visit offers a sharp contrast: traditional cells, double-celled, which are 81 square feet, hot (see below), and cramped.

The jail offers no housing options. Everyone is housed in cells on the far end of the pods from the control room.

My students are divided about housing. Some strongly prefer the privacy and relative protection of the cells, where one can lay in all day if they want. Other students far prefer the openness of U-dorm.

3. Surveillance

Inside the prison, there are over 600 cameras. In conjunction with the fence, the ability to watch offenders means that direct control needs only to be asserted at the entrance doors. Our group passes through the metal detector, and we are given temporary stamps on our wrists that glow under blacklight. We are then allowed into the prison.

The lack of direct supervision produces a strangely free atmosphere, quite unlike the panoptical prison devised by Jeremy Bentham and influentially described by Michel Foucault in his famous book, Discipline and Punish.

As C. Fred Alford, a critic of Foucault, concluded from his study of Lorton Penitentiary, a federal facility that closed in 2001, “When you control the entrances and exits, you do not have to look. It is that terribly simple…”

Inside El Dorado, only one guard watched approximately 200 inmates in two connected pods. Offenders are permitted to move freely between the two pods, but are not permitted inside another offender’s cell.

Order, we were told during our visit, is maintained by controlling small deviations in behavior. Incidents of major violence are rare in Kansas’s correctional facilities, and offenders of different races play basketball and talk together in the yard unless a fight occurs.

Officers in the prison described the methods of soft power at their disposal: Slowing down the line during what they call the “running of the bulls” (running to meals through the yard in the rain), imposing water restrictions in cells (“a flush every four hours”), and singling out inmates for the way their shoelaces are tied and for the fit of their jeans.

At the jail, there are 74 stationary cameras, and staff members wear body cameras. Since offenders are confined to the common room and cells in their pods (except for the porters), it feels as if everything can be seen from the control room in the middle of the pods.

As we watched, a jail inmate who leans against a communal table in a pod’s common area is told to wipe it down. He does not, but his convoluted explanation distracts and amuses everyone.

Around the perimeter of each pod in the jail is a red line that the inmates are not supposed to cross. Two of the young men manically powerwalk the line. I don’t time their circuit, but it can’t allow more than about 50 paces. The jail feels subterranean and enclosed—certainly no fault of its administrators, but an avoidable feature of its architecture and layout.

4. Programs

Programs at the county jail—GED equivalency, religious services, alcoholics and narcotics anonymous, a work release program with its own housing area—are very minimal.

At El Dorado, there are several facilities to support inmates. A large (27,000 square foot), $1 million Spiritual Life Center provides support for practitioners of the 27 religions that Kansas recognizes. There are outdoor religious worship areas for everyone from Asatru practitioners (“white supremacists”), and Native American Church members to Wiccans.

There is vocational training in masonry, electricity, and construction, and sentence reductions for those who complete their training. Inmates can send monitored emails to people on the outside, and they have limited access to the internet for job sites.

Offenders do not have to work, as they do at the federal level, but they can work, which beats county, which had a limited number of porter jobs (paid at $5/hour, with extra food and forgiven court costs) to keep offenders occupied. About 60 percent of the inmates work at El Dorado. Pay ranges from 60 cents a day for new arrivals to $1.05 cents a day.

Some food services inmates at El Dorado make 25 cents an hour, and a very few hold minimum wage jobs. Extra money (up to $400/month) can be sent back to family. Money also provides access to perks. For example, it cost offenders $200 to buy a 13” television set; the high price is explained by the need to make everything inmate-proof.

We visited a small room where offenders work for a balloon-making company for minimum wage. They were listening to the radio and working together quietly.

These minimum wage earners subsidize their own detention by “paying rent”—40 percent of their gross income, which includes 25 percent for room and board.

With respect to mental health, there are problems of diagnosis and treatment in both the jail and the prison. The long process of classifying offenders at RDU (see below) allows mental health testing to be done. But we are told that “a lot” of El Dorado inmates are on anti-psychotics.

Those who seem “BSC” (bat-shit crazy) are left with “Fred” for company. (Fred is the fluorescent light in RDU’s segregation cell.) State offenders are also provided with a variety of classes: group substance abuse, and mental health classes on substance abuse.

At the jail, the medical officer estimates that 15 percent of inmates suffer from some form of mental illness.

More troubling, we are told by the jail administrator that no one is dispensed any drug treatment for drug addiction except in cases where death can result from withdrawal—which, they say, is only true for delirium tremens. Offenders already on methadone are able to maintain their prescription, but otherwise addicts are not given direct treatment.

Walnut River

Walnut River, just outside the El Dorado facility. Photo by Chris Barker

This may explain the agitation and haggardness we see in the jail’s pods. At the jail, those who act out are left in holding’s poured concrete segregation cell to sleep off their illness, in their own vomit, if need be, for as long as a week.

In the segregation cell in holding, they are issued a mattress between the hours of 11 pm and 8 am, if their conduct permits it. (In holding, no one except inmates serving “quick dips” automatically gets a mattress.) As we watched, several young men in holding were sleeping on the concrete floor under their blankets.

5. Classification

All adult male felony offenders in Kansas are processed at El Dorado’s Reception and Diagnostic Unit. This is a long, thorough process that results in assignments to specific housing.

Individualization is needed for incarceration to be proportional and not overly punitive, and proper classification is important to match inmates with the proper conditions of incarceration. Having said this, there is an argument to be made for treating all offenders the same.

Offenders, we are told, treat those convicted of child molestation and crimes against women harshly. But one of our guides at El Dorado says that their job is to provide a safe and secure environment rather than a punitive environment. The head of El Dorado’s U-dorm says that the answer will vary by staff member, but he personally does not treat inmates more severely because of their crime.

6. Segregation  

El Dorado’s special management units include offenders in disciplinary segregation, long-term administrative segregation (e.g., for those such as BTK), and Kansas’s death row inmates. Special management has its own yard, which offenders do not use. We were allowed to look into it but not enter. Some special management offenders have spent years in solitary confinement on 23 hour a day lockdown. (One man, we were told, was recently released after serving 30 years of his 50-year sentence in solitary confinement.)

Special management offenders get one hour of yard a day, five days a week, and their exercise area is a concrete enclosure, partially open to the sky, which contains a metal frame for dips.

Special management inmates are permitted a ten-minute shower every other day, and are subject to strip search (during which they spread their cheeks and squat) every time they leave and return to their cells. Walking in the general population yard, we encountered one of the special management inmates being transported by two special security officers. He had a belly chain around his waist, and his wrists were cuffed.

“See you in 2052,” he called out to the young women in our group.

He is eligible for release in another 36 years.

Jail, of course, has the advantage in that it does not employ long-term administrative segregation. One pod is typically set aside for sex offenders, who cannot safely be housed with other offenders; two for women; and one for Sedgwick County’s overflow offenders. The other three pods are for all other offenders or pre-trial detainees.

7. Crowding and Temperature

El Dorado has an overcrowding problem. When we visited in 2016, they had 1,573 inmates. (They currently house over 1,900.) Transferring inmates to county jails costs the state $45-$50 a day. Understaffing is blamed for the June, 2017 disturbance at El Dorado, but further stress has been created by high volumes of transfers, especially transfers from Lansing, where a new facility is to be built, and from Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility, which is being reclassified as a medium security facility.

Likely as a result of these difficulties, James Heimgartner, El Dorado’s warden since 2011, left his position this summer.

There is no air conditioning in some of the cell blocks, and, despite the fact that we are told of statutory requirements to keep temperatures within a certain range (about 68-78 degrees), one of our guides told us that he personally recorded highs of 116 degrees, and 90 degree temperatures at 6 am.

For what it’s worth, inmates can buy small fans for $40 for some relief.

Kansas Corrections’ current policy requires thermostats to be set “not higher than 68 degrees” during the winter and “not lower than 78 degrees” during the summer, “where tempered air is available.” At El Dorado, both of our guides did not apologize about the summer heat that they also work in. They said that the coolers cost $10,000 a day to run, and they aren’t turned on until a few consecutive days of temperatures in the 90s. In the summer of 2017, excessive heat was blamed for at least some of El Dorado’s inmate disturbances.

The jail, in contrast, is air-conditioned. The staff tries to keep the temperature between 70-72 degrees, depending on the season.

8. Visitation

Visitation conditions are strikingly different at the jail and prison.

Visitations at the jail are no-contact visits where offenders and visitors communicate by using a video terminal. At the prison, the options range from a large, open visitation room with contact visits (but not conjugal visits); non-contact visitation rooms for sex offenders and for those who have received disciplinary reports for possessing contraband in the facility; and, at the most restrictive end, a video unit with a phone for those in special management.

Thus, visitation conditions for the general population of the jail, including those held prior to conviction, approximate the visitation conditions of those in the most restrictive classifications in the prison.

Our guide estimated that 85 percent of El Dorado’s contraband comes through the visitation room (and the rest from staff), but no one disputed that contact visitations are crucial for the inmates’ well-being.

In contrast, we were told that some offenders in the county jail are held for a year and a half, which is a very long time to be held without contact visits. When NPR reported on the move towards video visitation made by some jails, they quoted a New Hampshire sheriff, who called the lack of contact visits a “difficult sanction” and “hard time.”

Better, Not Bitter

“Better, not bitter” is the unofficial motto of Kansas corrections. This motto offers a compelling standard by which to evaluate incarceration in jails and prisons.

County jails perform several different tasks: They hold suspected offenders for trial; prepare offenders for long-term incarceration in prison; provide space for convicted offenders to serve misdemeanor sentences, or for “quick dip” probation and parole violation sanctions, mostly through drug court; and prepare offenders to re-enter society.

These are very different tasks. Moreover, county jails have the same, limited resources to serve all of those ends. Limited resources make the physical experience of incarceration in jail feel harsh in spite of the good intentions of the staff we meet.

In particular, the limitations on visitation and the lack of a yard seem to fail the “better, not bitter” maxim.

The prison, in contrast, takes advantage of economies of scale: more resources, more equipment, more programs, and more bureaucratic protections of inmates. The result is an ironically more humane experience, albeit one where inmates settle into a routine under long-term custodial supervision.

Prison inmates have access to outdoor areas, greater freedom of movement, more and more varied jobs, and a degree of housing options. There are problems: overcrowding, understaffing, out-of-control temperatures, double-bunking/double-celling, and extended and frequent lockdowns.

But these problems are not specific to prisons.

At both institutions, the well-intentioned attempt to treat all offenders equally is also a source of harshness in punishment.

Thus, while it seems appropriate to treat each offender the same, no matter their crime, individualization requires that offenders in prisons and jails should be able to:

  • Choose to have contact visitations at anything below the highest classification levels;
  • Access a variety of physical environments, including an outdoor yard with sufficient space and equipment to work large muscle groups;
  • Choose between dormitory housing and cells wherever feasible;
  • Work if they choose to do so, both to develop individual responsibility and to defray some of the costs of incarceration. (El Dorado spends approximately $32,000 per year per inmate. Cowley County spends about $25-40 per inmate per day, depending on the year and population);
  • Expect facilities that are safe, properly staffed, not overcrowded, not overly hot or cold, and not too far from their homes; and to have exit rights to transfer to a more congenial facility if those conditions are not met.

As El Dorado’s website makes clear, “offenders are sentenced to incarceration as punishment, not for punishment.”

Chris Barker, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. He welcomes comments from readers.


Seven Justice Books That May Change Minds in 2018

Before you jump to conclusions about the future of criminal justice reform in 2018, you might want to examine the arguments of some of the nation’s leading scholars. Here are seven books certain to influence next year’s policy debates.

The movement for criminal justice reform suffered major blows in 2017—and the prospects don’t look much better in 2018, as the Trump-Sessions administration continues to push its punitive agenda.

If you’re a reformer, take heart. Long-term change is often accomplished through small steps, and informed by careful thought and research. Plenty of the latter was on offer last year from criminal justice scholars and observers whose books offered a stimulating framework for continuing the debate.

And of course, if you think the current administration is on the right track, you may even find reasons in their work to justify your perspective.

Either way, here are seven books (including one by a TV commentator) that may help you make sense of the evolving criminal justice landscape in the year to come. Crime Report writers have spoken to several of the authors over the year, and we’ve added links to their Q&As in case you want to know more.

Prosecutors as Agents of Change

In his book Locked In: the True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, Fordham University law professor John Pfaff challenges the popular narrative that mass incarceration is driven by War on Drugs-era policies that put non-violent drug offenders away for longer and longer periods. Pfaff shows that this story explains only a fraction of the increase in the US incarceration rate over the past few decades. He also introduces a new key character: the prosecutor. “Few people in the criminal justice system are as powerful, or as central to prison growth, as the prosecutor,” Pfaff writes. He also notes that, for all of their power, “prosecutors are almost completely ignored by reformers.”

That may change. In November, Philadelphia elected former civil rights attorney Larry Krasner as district attorney. Krasner, set to take office Jan. 2, will arguably be the most progressive DA in the nation, which is why the eyes of many reformers will be on Philadelphia in 2018. You can read Pfaff’s Q&A with The Crime Report’s David Krajicek here.


Alex Vitale

The End of Policing As We Know It?

 Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made clear that he doesn’t believe it’s the role of the Department of Justice to “manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” Without the federal government playing a supervisory role in holding police departments accountable in incidents of racism, corruption, and brutality, in 2018 reformers will need to find new ways to curb such behaviors. In The End of Policing, Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale offers a different solution to police brutality than consent decrees – disarming the police. Vitale takes the reader back to the origins of policing, and frames police as the entity that has a monopoly on the use of force in a democratic society. Considering that the legitimized use of force is what makes the police unique, Vitale challenges the reader to confront whether it makes sense to have police act as first responders to all incidents they currently respond to.

Is there a mental health crisis? An armed police officer is often called. Is a child misbehaving in school, even pre-school? An armed police officer is often called. Drug abuse? An armed police officer comes to investigate and make arrests. Vitale criticizes common suggested reforms that emphasize training and community relationship building, and offers alternatives that include disarming the police and added investment in social services. For a taste of his book, read his revealing Q&A with Isidoro Rodriguez of The Crime Report.

Enforcement of Codes in the Colony

In his book, A Colony in a Nation, Emmy Award-winning news anchor Chris Hayes combines analysis of current and historical events with voices from those in justice-impacted communities, and lays a framework of a double system (to invoke W.E.B Du Bois)—the colony and the nation—separated by the color line. One of the most fascinating points Hayes makes is about the culture of enforcing laws. He writes: “If you’re looking to make a community furious, then arbitrarily fiddle with enforcement norms, and see what happens.”

This was true in the time of John Hancock, and it is true today, in the enforcement of parking violations, housing code enforcement, property nuisance ordinances, and criminal laws. Our expectations of enforcement are too often driven by the color of our skin and the amount of money in our bank account, not the severity of the violation. In 2017, from Chicago to Jacksonville, black bicycle riders and pedestrians found themselves subjected to increased enforcement for minor violations. In 2018, these issues should be elevated in local elections all throughout the nation.

Understanding Mass Incarceration

There are many political questions surrounding the rise of mass incarceration. In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Yale Law Professor James Forman Jr. reflects on his time as a public defender in Washington, D.C., and reflects on the realization that many people who promoted criminal justice policies that disproportionately harm black people are, in fact, also African American. In D.C., as is the case in other cities, black political power exists. There are and have been black prosecutors, public defenders, judges, mayors, police chiefs, and city council members; yet punitive politics that drive mass incarceration still prevail.

Forman walks the reader through the choices of political leaders in communities impacted by crime and drugs. Indeed, some black political leaders also bought into the War on Drugs rhetoric. With regards to black elected officials who view themselves as reformers, Forman views them as “defenders of the nonviolent-offender-only approach to reform that are sometimes silent about who is being left out.”

The Chokehold and Stop-and-Frisk

 In 2018, we can except to see more cities pursue aggressive stop-and-frisk and pro-active policing tactics with the blessing of the Department of Justice and the White House. To understand and correctly frame the impact of these tactics, among others, one would benefit by reading Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler.

Butler uses the chokehold, which “justifies additional pressure on the body because the body does not come into compliance, but the body cannot come into compliance because of the vise grip that is on it,” as an analogy to the entire experience of black males in America in front of police. Employing both legal analysis and personal experience, Butler deconstructs justice system phrase-making which he argues obfuscates reality. He argues, for example, that “seize and search” is a more accurate description of the technique’s “serious intrusion on the sanctity of the person” than “stop-question-and-frisk.” If Hayes’ work was an homage to Du Bois’ double system of justice, Chokehold describes the process through which the double system is operationalized.

Tying It All Together

 The collection of essays, Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, edited by American University law professor Angela J. Davis centers police brutality around race. Starting with an essay from Bryan Stevenson on the history of policing black men from slavery to our time, every essay in Policing the Black Man dispels the myths of color blind justice in every step of the criminal justice system: policing, indictment process, prosecution, and in the courts.

Two essays on prosecutors, one authored by Davis herself and another by Wake Forest University law professor Ronald F. Wright, make the connection between the books of Forman and Pfaff. Together, the essays are a comprehensive review of prosecution, ­emphasizing the role of the prosecutor as “the most powerful official in the criminal justice system.” They shed light on the dearth of black prosecutors, question whether elections are actually a means for accountability, and explore the complex relationship between prosecutors and voters of color.

The Perils of Big Data

big dataTrying to make sense of your computer glitches? So is the criminal justice system. As police, prosecutors and courts increasingly rely on computer analytics, so-called “big data” that captures and collates enormous amounts of information are being used in many cities to identify potential lawbreakers. But this form of predictive policing has also been criticized for its lack of transparency and potential for racial bias.

In his new book, The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law EnforcementAndrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, argues that the criticisms are valid, and should generate a conversation about the use of new technologies before this form of policing becomes institutionalized. Ferguson explained his perspective in a recent Q&A with Julia Pagnamenta of The Crime Report.

Abraham Gutman

Abraham Gutman

Abraham Gutman is an Israeli economist and writer currently based in Philadelphia. His writing focuses on criminal justice and housing. He holds an MA in economics from Hunter College where he conducted research on stop-and-frisk. He currently works as a researcher at the Beasley School of Law at Temple University. His writing has appeared in Salon, The Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philadelphia Magazine‚ among others. Readers’ comments are welcome. Follow him on Twitter @abgutman.


The Three-Door Jail and the Future of Incarceration

Modern jails should be smaller, smarter, greener, and kinder, says an architect who has designed detention facilities for 40 years. Some municipal authorities agree, but will others follow suit?

We’ve all heard it before. The U.S. incarcerates at the highest rate of any nation on earth. Prisons and jails are full. Mass incarceration is endemic to a rotten system.

There are many programs underway that are rethinking our approach to punishment, in ways that emphasize accountability and pro-social behavior: quit drug habits, learn a skill, get a job, be reliable, be punctual, support your family, and pay your debts to your victims.

But few have given much thought to how our current design of correctional institutions undermines these enlightened approaches.

I have been designing jails (not prisons) for the past 40 years. In that period, the philosophy behind jail design has changed radically—for the better. Today, many are indeed safer and more humane than they used to be.

But too many are not.

The physical plants where individuals are detained only emphasize the fact that modern jails are being asked to do too much. They are being asked to address the failure of the courts, the prosecutors, the mental health regime, the education regime, and civil society as well—all of which creates a stream of young, disturbed, addicted and disabled citizens flowing into jails that fall well short of recognized standards.

And the damage is long-lasting, as I can attest from personal knowledge.

The son of one family friend was recently arrested on felony charges after an episode in which he appeared to have gone off his meds. The young man had a successful career, and was voluntarily admitted to a local mental hospital.

But the District Attorney filed criminal charges against this schizophrenic young man and asked the judge to send him to the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City—a facility built on a landfill in 1935 and which has barely changed its profile since.

It’s not surprising that he is now desperate and suicidal.


The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City . Photo by David Oppenheimer via Flickr

Rikers is just one example of the poor state of jails around the country. Physical plants are often outmoded, and many lack funding even for basic repairs.

Even as admissions to county jails both large and small are showing a downward trend, roughly 40 percent of those admitted are diagnosed as having mental health issues, and these inmates are staying longer and longer in jail—typically for six to nine months.

Jails are most definitely not designed to hold the mentally ill for many months and often years. Just as jail personnel are not trained to take on complex behaviors that often turn violent.

There’s an alternative approach.

Smaller counties around the U.S. are moving toward what has been called a “three-door” jail.

Some examples include jails in Montgomery County MD; Maricopa County, Az; and Duchess County, NY.

Images accompanying this article show photos and architectural renderings of what new and more humane jails can look like.


House of Detention, Orange County, NY. All photos by Mikiko Kikuyama.

youth jail

Rhode Island Youth Detention Facility

Under this model, an individual apprehended on the street for troubling behavior is processed through one of three approaches or “doors:” Detention, Diversion or Deflection.

Detention is the classic secure jail setting.Diversion allows for release on recognizance or Third Party release, and Deflection would move the individual into a ‘stabilization” center or a “sobering” center.

The Deflection option also allows police to avoid arrest altogether by diverting individuals exhibiting signs of mental distress immediately to a hospital or clinic for treatment.


Brooklyn Detention Center, Brooklyn NY. Digital rendering courtesy Ken Ricci

In the “Three-Door Jail,” detention, magistrate, probation and mental health professionals are under one roof. Detainees arriving are processed and evaluated, then channeled into one of the appropriate “three doors.” Most leave in 24 hours.

The result is a smaller jail, since a good portion of detainees don’t linger waiting for court.

Since most states no longer allow involuntary admission to a mental facility (except in extraordinary circumstances) the stabilization model requires skilled mental health staff to convince the detainee of the benefit of staying overnight on a voluntary basis.

More municipal and county authorities need to think of ways to redesign jails to fit this three-door model.

In New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio has announced his intention to replace the discredited Rikers Island facility over the next ten years with replacement jails in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. But the size of these proposed borough jails threatens to replicate the discredited warehouse model, emphasizing security over deflection and diversion.


Union County (NJ) detention center


Union County (NJ) Detention Center. Photos by Mikiko Kikuyama.

Los Angeles is thinking about building a 20-storey high rise to house mentally ill detainees. That goes against arguments that housing for this population should be on a more humane scale, low rise, and therapeutic.

The prevailing philosophy of jail building design is clearly colliding with enlightened approaches to incarcerating prisoners, such as the “three-door jail.”

Big systems like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, are stuck in a conceptual quagmire. Big bureaucracies only know how to mobilize large-scale solutions. Lacking suitable sites (due to NIMBY, environmental reviews, etc.), they are tempted to resort to high-rise buildings or to sites away from the community.

Either solution is conceptually deficient and operationally obsolete at the outset. Many law-breakers are high or crazy. Sometimes both. While putting them in jail is the only solution right now, defining the “problem” in a new way may lead to a new solution.

Modern jails should be smaller, smarter, greener, and kinder.

Small strategies include providing services under one roof. This speeds up the detention decision process, reduces lengths of stay and gets most arrestees out into the community faster and requires fewer cells.

The new Denver Detention Center, for example, has two pretrial courtrooms on the same floor as the intake housing area. Recent arriv­als simply walk across the corridor to visit the courtroom for pretrial hearings. About 40 percent of those admitted are released within four days; most of them never use an elevator to go to court.

Smarter jails look like libraries. Their design allows them to fit in the neighborhood without lowering property values. Modern technology provides distance visitation and distance learning; remote arraignment and bail hearings; air conditioning and noise control.

Green jails require a green justice system that supports and contributes to sustainable com­munities. Locat­ing the new jail connected to the courthouse eliminates the need for lengthy bus trips to court, reduces air pollution and speeds the adjudication process.

Kinder jails have more sunlight, good sightlines, smaller housing units, direct supervision, and environments with connections to the outdoors.

Ken Ricci

Ken Ricci

The moral irony here is that the closure of mental institutions has resulted in the criminalization of many mental health episodes. And obsolete philosophy behind jail design only makes the situation worse.

We can do better.

Ken Ricci graduated from the Pratt Institute School of Architecture and was elevated to the College of Fellows for his career dedicated to improving environments for the incarcerated. His designs have been recognized for their light-filled interiors and for their optimism that belies the building type. Jail administrators and county commissioners in large and small cities are his clients. He welcomes comments from readers.


Can the U.S. Cut Mass Incarceration?

Leading criminologists tout progress made on state sentencing reforms, saying it proves there are feasible ways to cut the U.S. inmate population and reduce crime at the same time.

The “changed” national conversation about who we send to jails and prisons–and for how long—offers hope for reductions in the number of Americans behind bars, say leading criminologists.

Experts at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, which ended Saturday, said several jurisdictions had already demonstrated it was possible to reduce inmate populations, which topped 2.2 million nationwide in the last official count, without endangering public safety.

Yet a new survey released before the conference pointed in the opposite direction.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center asked all states where they saw their prison population total going in the next few years. Twenty-one of 29 states that had a projection believed the inmate count would rise.

Despite this finding, several participants in a panel discussion Friday on sentencing reform in the Trump era insisted that there are feasible ways to cut the U.S. imprisonment level, perhaps sharply.

James Austin, a consultant to states on prison issues, pointed to New York City and the states of California and New Jersey as places that have managed to have both fewer inmates and less crime.

Austin contends that the national prisoner total could be cut in half by two straightforward steps: reducing the average time that a person is held in custody from the current 29 months to an average of 21 months, and stopping the common practice of sending those on probation and parole behind bars for violating rules.

Contributing to what Austin sees as an inmate overload is too many arrests by police officers at the front end of the process, he said.

Austin chided criminologists for adding to the public perception that fewer prisoners means more crime in the streets, a supposed linkage he says has been disproved in several major states.

Criminologist Todd Clear of Rutgers University agreed with Austin that sending fewer people to prison for less time is the key to eliminating mass incarceration.

In Clear’s view, the view about incarceration among much of the public and their elected representatives already has improved.

Amid continuing lower crime rates around the nation than were recorded in the 1990s, “the conversation is different — something has changed,” Clear said.

As evidence, he asserted that there has been little public outrage about former prisoners who commit new crimes.

While such incidents are bound to happen, the public understands that some criminals “make terrible mistakes” but violence is not on the rise overall, he added.

Clear observed that most political candidates no longer are running on “tough on crime” platforms.

President Trump regularly does use such rhetoric, but the criminology panelists said they didn’t believe that his administration will have much impact on criminal justice policy at the state and local level.

Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center, which has created maps showing the origins of prisoners, parolees and probationers, originated the term “justice reinvestment,” a program that seeks to spend less tax money on housing prisoners and reinvest it in better local services or convicted people.

Cadora contended at the criminology discussion that reducing prison populations is an issue of “managing local discretion” among police officer, prosecutors and other public officials. A focus on changing state sentencing laws will not solve the problem, he said, because state legislatures are reluctant to tell officials in local areas, where crime problems may differ dramatically, what to do.

The federal government is continuing to spend money on justice reinvestment plans for states and they are helping to reduce inmate totals, said Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who also spoke on the panel.

Wetzel said that his counterparts in many states are backing the program, and it should get credit for modest prison count declines in some of them. He declared himself “optimistic” that the trend would continue.

In Pennsylvania, where the criminology conference was held, Gov. Tom Wolf last year hailed a decline of nearly 850 inmates in 2015, which he said was the largest one-year decline in population over the last 40 years. Yet the total remained just under 50,000, each of whom cost the state $41,000 annually to incarcerate.

Wetzel had presided earlier last week at a “50-State Summit” on criminal justice in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, and the U.S. Justice Department.

A survey of states presented at the conference was not so optimistic as was the criminologists panel.

Six states projected double-digit increases in prisoners over the next decade, including Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico and West Virginia. Kansas and Kentucky have been hailed as successes of the “justice reinvestment” process.

Although most of the states on the list have smaller populations, Minnesota, Ohio and Virginia also appear.

Panelists last week agreed that it doesn’t have to happen. The most often cited example is Texas, which in 2007 had 155,000 inmates and a projection of adding 17,000 in future years in $523 million worth of new prisons.

Alarmed legislators took the justice reinvestment approach, and the state not only has many fewer inmates, about 141,000, but has been able to close several prisons.

One somewhat overlooked component of public opinion on prison issues is crime victims, argued consultant Austin.

He said the public would support changes in sentencing policy if more people come to understand that crime victimization is a “rare event” and if state governments stopped doing a “terrible job” helping crime victims and “fully compensated” them.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.


Charlotte Judges Plan Reforms to End ‘Spiral of Incarceration’

The 21 District Court judges in Mecklenburg County, N.C., say they are determined to stop locking up criminal defendants solely because they can’t afford to pay fines.

A group of judges in Mecklenburg County, N.C., has launched an effort to end the “spiral of incarceration” that grips poor people who are unable to pay fines, reports the Charlotte Observer. Working with Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Debt Initiative, the county’s 21 District Court judges will soon begin holding formal hearings to determine a defendant’s economic status before levying penalties. The new process could begin as early as this week. On any given day at the Mecklenburg County Jail, more than 300 people – 18 percent of the average daily inmate population – are locked up solely because they failed or can’t afford to pay fines or other monetary penalties attached to their criminal cases. Many are jailed repeatedly at taxpayer expense for outstanding court debts on minor offenses.

“What we see far too often is a defendant who has been arrested for not paying court costs,” said District Court Judge Becky Tin. “And you’re sitting on the bench, and you see them after they’ve been in jail for seven days because they do not have the money. This should never happen. It is our intent in Mecklenburg County that this will no longer happen.” State law gives judges wide leeway in matching court penalties with a defendant’s ability to pay. But state lawmakers have made it more difficult to waive or reduce penalties for indigent defendants–a legislative attempt to protect the $700 million that court fines and costs add to the state’s general fund each year. The judges say they are ready to do battle over the issue.


U.S. Gets ‘Abysmal’ Grade on Pretrial Justice

The first baseline measurement of pretrial justice across the U.S. has found most states to be failing, with a few “promising” exceptions, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute.

The first baseline measurement of pretrial justice across the U.S. has found most states to be failing, with a few “promising” exceptions, according to a national advocacy group.

In a study released Wednesday by the Pretrial Justice Institute, authors measured the rates of pretrial detention, use of available risk assessment tools, and the status of money bail systems in every state.

“Needless” incarceration before trail is the primary cause for states’ failing grades: according to PJI’s findings, two thirds of the current U.S. jail population has not yet been to trail.

At the forefront of pretrial justice reform are Washington D.C., where 92 percent of those arrested are released pretrial and no one is detained for inability to pay; and New Jersey, which implemented statewide pretrial services earlier this year, resulting in a 15 percent reduction of pretrial detainees within the first six months.

The report also highlights legislative advances made by Alaska, Arizona, California, Indiana, Maryland, and New Mexico in the area of pretrial justice reform.

While the number of jurisdictions using risk assessment tools has more than doubled in the past four years, authors note that the increase is driven by “a few states and densely populated jurisdictions,” adding that “evidence-based pretrial assessments show that most people released before trial will appear in court and not be arrested on new charges pending trial.”

See also: Risk Assessment: The Devil’s in the Details

The study used money bail as its final measure because “financial conditions play such a large role in needlessly detaining people and giving us a false sense of safety,” according to the authors. New Jersey is the only state to have eliminated money bail, so this is where the U.S. pretrial justice score hovers closest to zero: only 3% of Americans live in a jurisdiction that has eliminated cash bail.

“As long as pretrial systems use money as a condition of pretrial release,” concludes the report, “poor and working class people will remain behind bars while those who are wealthy go home, regardless of their likelihood of pretrial success. This is a fundamental injustice.”

See also: Bail Reform: Why Judges Should Reject ‘Risk Assessment’

This summary was prepared by Victoria Mckenzie, Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.