New York Times
SMALLER JAILS STRUGGLE TO
COPE WITH SURGE IN INMATES
town square in the seat of rural Chenango County is postcard-perfect.
The restored old courthouse has a gold dome and stately columns.
The First Baptist Church is on one side of the square, the United
Church of Christ on the other.
one corner of the square is the tiny red brick County Jail, built
in 1902. One can envision the bar brawlers and cattle rustlers
being led up the wooden steps for a stay in the lockup, where
friendly sheriff's deputies played cards with prisoners and kept
their keys on a big metal ring.
today, the reality of the jail on the Norwich square, 45 miles
north of Binghamton, is hardly quaint. The role of this jail,
and thousands of others like it across the country, has changed
significantly because they must house more hardened criminals,
some for longer periods, in part because there is no room for
them in overcrowded state and Federal prisons.
the County Jail are one youth who is accused of shooting at his
family and another who is accused of beating up a teacher for
$600. There are two Federal prisoners facing drug charges. A recent
inmate was an escaped prisoner from New Mexico, wanted in the
killing of a teen-age boy.
inmates with mental illnesses need to be medicated and restrained,
and two years ago at least eight inmates attempted suicide. Guards
have found smuggled drugs, and toothbrushes and spoons sharpened
into weapons. All that in a jail that holds close to 50 inmates,
up from 28 two years ago.
not like Andy and Mayberry," said Vincent Marsenelli, the
county's Undersheriff, who has worked there for 25 years. "I
kind of miss the good old days of sitting here drinking coffee
and having a beer with the inmates when they get out. Those days
population in local jails nationwide is now more than 490,000,
up from 223,500 in 1983, mirroring the rise in the number of state
and Federal prisoners to exceed one million. The inmate boom is
a particular challenge for jails, which traditionally held low-level
offenders until they made bail, went to trial or served short
sentences, but have now taken on the characteristics of prisons.
inmates, many with drug abuse or mental health problems, are staying
in jails longer, often because state and Federal prisons are crowded.
Harsher penalties for crimes ranging from driving while intoxicated
to failure to pay child support are crowding jails. And jails
are increasingly facing security problems, from dangerous overcrowding
to drug smuggling.
got a lot of mom-and-pop local jails, and they're just not prepared
to handle the complexity of the issues," said Mark F. Fitzgibbons,
director of detention in Beaufort County, S.C., and vice president
of the American Jail Association.
Moser, a staff member of the National Sheriffs Association, said:
"You're seeing a very volatile situation. It's almost like
a pressure valve in them. You're taking a county jail that was
meant for 12-month sentences and less and you're making it into
a prison setting."
problems of housing large numbers of criminals have long plagued
the large jails of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and other
big cities that hold thousands of inmates. But now those conditions
are trickling down to mid-sized and even small jails. Of the nation's
3,272 jails, 1,739 hold 50 or fewer inmates, the American Jail
Association reported last year.
administrators say drug abuse has compounded their problems since
many inmates are on drugs or alcohol when they arrive and become
violent or depressed when they realize where they are. Experts
say this partly accounts for the suicide rate in jails, which
is five times the rate in prisons, where sentenced inmates seem
more adjusted to incarceration.
M. Hayes, the assistant director of the National Center on Institutions
and Alternatives, who has studied jail suicides, observed: "Usually
people who are in jail are there for a short period of time. They
have no experience with jail. There's fear. They're intoxicated,
so their judgment is impaired, and they don't know if anybody
on the outside cares about them."
L. Campbell, the Albany County Sheriff, whose jail population
has gone from 500 to about 800 in six years, said: "We get
the drunks, we get the drugs, we get everything, 24 hours a day.
We never know what's going to come through the door."
of the arrivals find drugs inside. Michael Duncan, who works for
a beer company in Caldwell, Idaho, said he served a weekend sentence
in September at the Canyon County Jail for driving under the influence
of alcohol and was surprised to see drug use there.
thought it was ridiculous to go to jail and sit there and watch
people smoke dope," he said. "As I'm lying there in
the bunk, I could watch two other guys there lighting a joint."
strain of crowding has been particularly acute in the small jails
of the rural South and West. Nancy Ortega, a lawyer with the Southern
Center for Human Rights, which has sued 10 county jails in Alabama
in the last four years, said typically the jails have inadequate
plumbing and lighting, are short on staff and are filthy. She
said that when she showed up at a jail in Conecuh County, northeast
of Mobile, "there was no one on duty, and inmates were carrying
keys." At another Alabama jail, each inmate had an average
of six square feet of space.
really out of control," Ms. Ortega said. "People want
to jam as many inmates as possible into these jails, but they
don't want to pay for services. I'm not talking about their coffee
being too cold. I'm talking about basic human needs, where it's
not 125 degrees in the cells in the summer and so cold in the
winter that water in the toilet freezes, where you're not assaulted
and the guy next to you has tuberculosis."
Bannock County, Idaho, 180 miles north of Salt Lake City, Sheriff
Bill Lynn said that until a few years ago, he had as many as 140
inmates in a jail built to hold 45. "They were sleeping in
the aisleways on the way to the john," he said. "They
all had mattresses, but there weren't really many places to walk."
said he had been unable to get political support for building
a new prison until he was sued by the American Civil Liberties
Union in 1991 for poor conditions that he readily admitted. "The
public is crying out, rightfully so I think, to put criminals
in jail," he said. "But if we're not willing to pay
for it, then we may have to let the least bad go."
conditions vary widely, experts say, and are not governed by any
uniform set of standards. In some cases, state regulations have
improved conditions, and in the last 20 years courts have required
changes in jails where inmates brought lawsuits.
as mid-sized county jails grew into large detention centers, the
style of their management did not always seem to keep pace.
auditors in Northampton County, Pa., began reviewing operations
at the jail in Easton this year, they found widespread evidence
of the theft of supplies and of employees' falsifying records
to get paid even when they were not working. In addition, auditors
collected allegations of drug smuggling by guards and of sex between
guards and inmates. The findings were turned over to the state's
Attorney General for investigation.
Hamm, who said he had served several stints in the jail over the
last two decades on theft and other charges, said he told investigators
that guards knew him well enough that sometimes they let him leave
during the day. He said he even continued working as a house painter
while serving time.
get up in the morning, I'd go down and they'd open the door for
me and I'd get in my car," he said. "I always came back."
G. Kessler, a private investigator from New York who reviewed
the jail operations for the county, said the allegations pointed
to "widespread corruption." Frank Kedl, the internal
audit manager for the County Comptroller, said the inmate population
had grown to nearly 500 from about 250 inmates 10 years ago and
that "over the years, people had been accustomed to doing
things a certain way."
even well-run jails have serious problems. Tom Faust, the Sheriff
of Arlington County, Va., who is the president of the American
Jail Association, said jails around the country are under severe
financial strain because they are forced to provide increased
services on tighter budgets to more inmates.
Faust, whose jail houses 500 inmates, up from 100 two decades
ago, said he now provides classes in English as a second language,
job training, drug and alcohol treatment and other programs. Jails,
he said, have gone "from being the local lockup to essentially
a full-service correctional facility."
strain can be seen even at the tiny Chenango County Jail in Norwich.
Family visits, recreation and church services are all held in
the same room. The jail administrator, Lieut. Ernest Cutting,
said the jail can hold 50 inmates but accepts fewer because of
a shortage of officers -- with a $16,000 starting salary.
communal cells and a small dormitory, it is difficult to keep
the inmates separated by sex, age and violent tendencies.
guard against disturbances, officers recently began locking inmates
in their cells during mealtime. One of the jail's 16 cells has
Plexiglas panels over the bars for inmates thought likely to throw
urine or other things at officers. In September, an inmate attacked
officers, biting one of them.
Cutting said the jail was a homey place only a few years ago.
Vagrants looking for warm beds in the winter would break windows,
hoping for 30- or 60-day sentences in the jail, he said.
the way it is," he said, "we're not just a little jail
Author - Matt Purdy