who’s to blame for jail problems?

Not long ago, a great story “Do we have the right people locked up?” from the Chicago Reader came across my Twitter feed. As a historian writing the recent history of Cook County Jail, I was disappointed to see that Cook County politicians are still hashing through the same questions they were dealing with forty years ago. The piece is worth reading on its own merits, but I particularly loved the graphic that illustrated the piece, part of which I screenshotted: Image

I took for granted that this genre of blame story was a Cook County thing. However, when my brother texted me this story from my hometown newspaper, the Tacoma News Tribune, “Tacoma’s shift away from jail brings hard time to Pierce County,” it occurred to me that the “who’s to blame” story is a common trope of jail reporting and editorials nationwide. Indeed, Googling “who is to blame for jail problems?” brought up a host of stories from the last month or two, from less populated areas in Alabama, Arkansas, and East Tennessee, to metropolitan areas such as Akron, Portland, ME, Spokane, WA, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, to name a few.

Some of the actors and factors to blame:

-prescription drug arrests

-unstable funding from states

– low staffing levels

-systemic problems surrounding parole boards

-former sheriffs

-county boards


-current sheriffs

-rival jails siphoning off inmates

-the recession

-debt payments on jails

These are not new problems, and all of them, I think, point to the problem that county jails sit at the nexus of multi-jurisdictional crime control efforts that involve too many stakeholders and too little accountability. For much of the twentieth century, counties tolerated jail problems as the status quo. It the 1960s, counties began to turn to states and the federal government for guidance and funding, or were forced to make changes by state jail inspectors and judicial intervention. The outcome of these shifts was that counties had to expand jail facilities beyond their governing capacities in order to keep jails in scale with the rest of the expanding criminal justice system. Few counties in the country can actually afford to operate their jails to meet current demands of policing; few counties have the expertise to manage large jail populations or to make sound long-term jail policy. The lessons of the past thirty years are clear: too many counties have used construction as a substitute for reforms to bail and bonds, policing, mental health, drug rehabilitation, education, job programs, and community corrections. Small time politicos can point fingers all they want, but change won’t come until counties shift their focus away from who’s to blame for problems in jail to meaningful and far-reaching reform and expansion of the services counties provide to citizens.

another source for online jail reviews.

another source for online jail reviews.

I hadn’t thought to look up jails on Google Maps until I found myself looking at the street view for Men’s Central Jail in LA. It’s no Yelp, but it’s still jarring to come across jail reviews when I don’t expect them. I still can’t describe why I find jail reviews difficult to understand- I suppose it’s because I think of online reviews as evidence of consumption. I also like to think that if I post an online review somebody associated with a place will read it. For some reason, I don’t tend to think of jails as sites of consumption or places that really mind if you think the food sucks. Perhaps the Consumer’s Republic extends to the most undemocratic spaces? Or is it that the democracy of the internet public allows anyone to write a review- as long as you are out of jail and have internet access?

Worth noting that not all of the dots are jails. Some are juvenile detention centers, others are sheriffs departments, some are historic sites. One of the dots in Wyoming is a dump.

“we can and must make it something else.”

I am occasionally surprised to encounter beautiful writing in my work. This quote comes from a 1945 essay in Prison World entitled “Jails: Yesterday and Today” by Leon T. Stern, then Secretary of Pennsylvania Committee on Penal Affairs of The Public Charities Association. An elegant reminder of Pennsylvania’s strong tradition of abolitionism and some of the same questions that face us today.

“The jail is the proto-prison from which all our local penal institutions have grown. We have called it jail, house of correction, workhouse, county prison, city prison, county penitentiary. It is always being attacked, always being abolished and demolished for its sins against the human spirit. Reformed it rises from its own rubble, flourishes briefly as a newly discovered institution, and soon is a jail again. It seems to grow of itself alone. The jail is made not of steel and stone but of our hates, our fears, our defenses and is destroyed and remade by our compassions when its iniquities become too great. When we have attained true justice the day envisioned by Charles Dickens may come, and the doors of the jails will be barred as firmly from the outside as we now bar them from the inside. Jail gates still close avidly on all we can herd and crowd through them.”


“The jail has not  been  abolished.  When we recall that ten times as many men enter the local prisons as find their way into state prisons and reformatories, the difficulties of abolition of the county jails become apparent. We can depopulate it, we can decrease the use of it; but we are not as yet prepared to have it disappear completely. There may be “something that does not love a wall.” But as long as we are not prepared to substitute completely other methods of treatment for reformation through imprisonment (discovered so victoriously by the great torchbearers of the past), it cannot fully ’abolish’ the jail. We can and must make it something else.”