the jail construction conundrum.

philly.com aerial photo of the House of Correction

In Philadelphia, there is news that the city’s new budget includes funds to buy land for a new jail. The jail would replace the city’s House of Correction, built in 1874, which today houses 1,500 people. As Commissioner Lou Giorla asserts, “It was substantially renovated in 1929 and not since. It requires a number of capital improvements, and it’s difficult to maintain, and it does not support correctional practice today. We have to replace it.”

In New York, a former corrections administrator blames the problems at Rikers Island on archaic facilities. In what appears to be a rebuttal to The New York Times’ careful documentation of a culture of brutality by corrections officers, the official declares “the cumulative effect of years of disrepair and neglect have made Rikers into a place that essentially invites bad behavior… Inmates — in most cases, people who have been accused but not yet convicted of a crime — deserve better. So do correction officers, who deserve decent and respectable working conditions.”

In both cities, I imagine, activists are considering the need to mobilize against imminent jail construction in a moment widely celebrated by bipartisan coalitions as an epoch of decarceration and criminal justice reform.

The question of whether problems in either city jail system can be resolved by jail construction is a complicated one. After World War II, counties across the country embarked on the project of replacing archaic jail facilities; by 1978, nearly 60% of the nation’s jail population lived in facilities built after 1950.[1] In spite of this construction, a rights revolution of class action lawsuits over jail conditions flourished throughout the United States.

In a 1969 report on Illinois jails, scholar Hans W. Mattick looked skeptically at jail construction, suggesting, “the fundamental fact about jail reform… has consisted of replacing dilapidated facilities with new structures. The same old sour milk is poured into new bottles while the mold continues to flourish.”[2]

Mattick’s concerns that new facilities would remain understaffed, dirty, and dangerous were born out by the ensuing forty years of class action suits at Cook County Jail in Chicago. Every time administrators asked for funds to build a new building, they promised improved conditions; with each new building, there were more allegations of inmate maltreatment. Today, an ongoing class action suit by the MacArthur Justice Center focuses on two of the Jail’s newest buildings, all of which should, on paper, meet modern day correctional standards. Charging “The sadistic violence and brutality at the Cook County Jail is not the work of a few rogue officers,” it seems likely that new buildings have not resolved a culture of violence that is rooted in labor practices at Cook County Jail.

With this history in mind, should we dismiss jail construction altogether? In the Philadelphia case, I don’t doubt for a second that housing people in a facility built in 1874 is a living nightmare for both detainees and staff. A new facility would probably be a vast improvement, and indeed, replacing a structure that is over one hundred years old is kind of a policy no brainer. I doubt that a fight against jail construction in Philadelphia will be successful. As the call for construction at Rikers comes on the heels of inmates saving a corrections officer from a sexual attack, it is difficult to argue with the fact that existing jail spaces aren’t dangerous. They are dangerous.

However, discussion about jail construction must also be accompanied by a reassessment of how local courts use bail and how much pre-trial detention in these facilities is truly necessary. Jail administrators will choose construction to deal with their internal problems; it is a tool of reform that they will use in spite of evidence against its efficacy because it is one of the few tools they have. Unfortunately, jail policy is often made in isolation from the policing and judicial contexts that fill jail beds in the first place.

The best way to avoid jail construction is to divert those arrested from pre-trial detention through a reduced dependence on money bail. Only after the courts have done their part to reduce pre-trial populations can communities make informed decisions about whether or not maintaining a city’s jail bed capacity is truly necessary.

[1] Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Jails: Intergovernmental Dimisions of a Local Problem (Washington DC: May 1984), 6. http://www.library.unt.edu/gpo/acir/Reports/policy/a-94.pdf

[2] Hans W. Mattick and Ronald P. Sweet, Illinois Jails: Challenge and Opportunity for the 1970’s (Chicago: Center for Studies in Criminal Justice, the Law School, University of Chicago, 1969), A. https://www.ncjrs.gov/app/abstractdb/AbstractDBDetails.aspx?id=651

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