Guest Commentary: Jail Intake Is Killing People – Decarceration Is the Way to Stop It

In New York City and Los Angeles, jail reception areas are notoriously unsafe—and sometimes deadly.

By Sam McCann

Before newly incarcerated people are assigned to a cell block or a bed, they are typically held in intake units or facilities. This initial detention is meant to allow staff sufficient time to process people into the jail’s systems, evaluate any special medical or housing needs they may have, and, in some cases, quarantine them from the general population as a precaution against COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. Intake areas are also used to hold incarcerated people after some court appearances and medical appointments.

These units are temporary by design. Many jails are not governed by enforceable national standards and are subject to limited federal oversight, so conditions vary greatly state-to-state—and even jail-to-jail. Many intake areas are not required to provide natural sunlight, and some do not provide adequate showers, toilets, or beds.

One justification for the sparse conditions is that a person’s time in intake should be counted in hours, not days. Some jurisdictions, including New York City and Los Angeles, are supposed to cap the amount of time someone can be held in intake at 24 hours. But this limit is often flagrantly ignored by jail administrations. Both Los Angeles and New York City jails are in crises that killed a combined 54 people in 2023 alone (at least)—crises fueled in part by dire conditions and long stays in their intake facilities. In both jurisdictions, jail staff routinely hold incarcerated people in intake cells far longer than the legal limit in gravely dangerous conditions. That fact points to the urgent need to decarcerate generally, which would reduce the bottleneck in intake while making the jails less deadly overall. Both New York City and Los Angeles can drop their jail populations safely by prioritizing community-based programs that would help keep people out of jail by addressing their unmet housing and mental health needs instead of incarcerating them.

At Rikers, intake units have “imploded”

In New York City, the federal monitor charged with overseeing Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex, released a report in 2022 stating that conditions in intake units had “imploded.” It noted that people were held in intake for days—and sometimes weeks—in “horrifying” conditions. On one site visit, the monitoring team found a toilet overflowing with feces and observed someone sleeping on the floor outside the intake pens.

The monitor’s reports echo other firsthand accounts. In September 2021, elected officials and public defenders visiting the intensely overcrowded intake unit found people being forced to sleep in shower stalls or on floors covered with human waste, rotting food, and cockroaches. Leaked surveillance photos from inside one facility showed 26 people crammed into a single cell.

Rikers staff were also caught altering records to make the jail appear compliant with the requirement to move people through intake within 24 hours, which led the monitor to conclude the number of people forced into extended stays “is simply unknown.”

Beyond the length of stay and wretched conditions, Rikers intake areas are being used inappropriately. The federal monitor’s reports document jail staff routinely using intake to hold incarcerated people following use-of-force incidents—in which officers use physical violence against an incarcerated person. The reports also note a high rate of use of force, especially head strikes, within the intake units, and that staff fail to intervene in instances of self-harm throughout the jail, but particularly in intake.

Tamara Carter, whose son Brandon Rodriguez died by suicide in intake on Rikers in 2021, says that the intake process is also failing its primary job: evaluating people’s needs before assigning them to a bed. “If they had all of his medical records at intake, maybe he’d be alive today,” Carter told THE CITY.

However, despite the continued failure to address the crisis in intake units, in the spring of 2023, a federal judge declined to hold the city’s Department of Correction (DOC) in contempt of court for it . But as jail conditions worsen and DOC resists reform efforts, that judge is now considering turning over control of Rikers to a court-appointed receiver.

Los Angeles County Jail Inmate Reception Center is “a living hell”

In Los Angeles County, incarcerated people face similar conditions upon intake and similarly uncertain durations of their stay. The county’s Inmate Reception Center (IRC) has been severely overcrowded, with people forced to sleep without blankets on floors littered with waste and garbage. People are denied clothes, showers, and basic dignity. One person held there called it “a living hell.” Particularly alarming was an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) court filing that reported instances of jail staff chaining people with severe mental illnesses to chairs and benches for days upon intake.

Like on Rikers, LA County’s IRC is also failing its basic function to process people quickly. Following the ACLU lawsuit in 2022, the county conceded to the horrific conditions inside IRC, and a judge ordered that they could no longer hold people in the facility for longer than 24 hours.

However, the county has failed to comply with that order. In early 2023, the ACLU claimed that IRC processing remained delayed, continuing to subject people to hazardous conditions. It also identified “IRC overflow” units throughout one of the county’s jails, which it said were a way to keep the county’s failure to comply off the record. Those claims were ultimately settled last June through an agreement that the ACLU hopes will lower the jail population overall while alleviating the crisis in IRC.

The ACLU’s settlement points to the fundamental problem facing intake units: mass incarceration generally stresses systems beyond their breaking points. Intake is one of the first of those systems to break—the consequences of which are deadly.

The path forward

There is no reason to continue to force people into deadly jail intake units when community-based diversion programs are a viable alternative. These programs build public safety and reduce rearrest rates by meeting the underlying housing and health needs of people who would otherwise be targeted by, and trapped in, the criminal legal system.

The best way to address the crisis facing jail intake units is to reduce the jail population broadly, which can be done by prioritizing support—not incarceration—for people who need it. This will prevent people from dying in jail reception areas while also building stronger communities on the outside.

Originally Published by Vera Institute of Justice

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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