Prison Policy Initiative Reports: The Three Cs of Jail Construction Arguments – Capacity, Contemporary, and Compassion 

By Julie McCaffrey

EASTHAMPTON, MAThe three arguments most commonly used to justify building or renovating another jail—capacity, contemporary, and compassionate—are outdated and ineffective, reports the Prison Policy Initiative this past week.

While PPI admits the arguments are compelling because they respond to real issues, they fail to illustrate how “these issues are largely driven by bad policies that have drastically expanded reliance on packing people in cages.”

According to PPI, new jail constructions often fail to meet promises, redirect millions of dollars used for community-based resources, and ignore the wishes of the citizens, who are then saddled with the consequences of the projects.

For example, notes PPI, Arapahoe County, CO, is expanding its jail four years after taxpayers rejected a proposition to raise taxes for a new one, and $30 million will come from COVID-19 relief funds. This uses COVID-19 relief funds in an expressly forbidden way, states the American Civil Liberties Union.

The capacity argument suggests “a bigger jail is required to house everyone being incarcerated in the jurisdiction,” and is therefore the only way to meet capacity needs, said Prison Policy Initiative, charging this reasoning is highly flawed because jail construction is based on “needs assessments” done by construction firms who want to profit from building a new jail.

This leads to counties not permanently solving capacity needs, as bigger jails enable counties to continue bad practices, which will then lead to a positive feedback loop in which counties need to build even bigger jails to accommodate those incarcerated, said PPI.

“The simple truth is that no jail will ever be big enough to satisfy an over-reliance on incarcerate-first policies,” writes the Prison Policy Initiative.

Other examples of the capacity argument in real life, said PPI, include Greene County, MI and Lubbock County, TX.

The former county built a 552-bed jail in 2001 which was quickly filled, leading to the jail surpassing capacity in just two years, when the new jail was promised to resolve capacity needs for a decade.

Despite adding additional bed space and adding a trailer jail annex, a 2017 needs assessment called the jail growth “unsustainable,” which triggered a $150 million 1,252 bed expansion in 2020. This was largely driven by bad policies, including arresting unhoused people, said PPI.

Similarly, said PPI, Lubbock County built a new 1,512-bed jail in 2010, which cost $94.5 million in taxpayer bonds and was intended to meet capacity constraints far into the future. Despite this, jail growth ballooned, and led to county officials spending $1 million of the county’s budget and incarcerating people in other counties, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

The Initiative states there is an easy fix to Lubbock County’s capacity problems—limiting pretrial detention…76 percent of the jail’s population are people who are being held pretrial, and have not been convicted of a crime…10 percent of the people being held pretrial are people who have allegedly committed misdemeanors.

The Prison Policy Initiative asserts that “pretrial detention practices play a huge part in the county’s perpetual capacity problems.” Despite this, Lubbock’s sheriff recently proposed a 996-bed expansion, projected to cost taxpayers another $464 million.

The contemporary argument asserts that new construction is needed to update an outdated jail, often with a lot of embellishments that come with exorbitant construction costs, writes the Prison Policy Initiative. At times, the facilities can be too costly to staff and maintain or finish, which results in the newly completed jails to be half-finished or sit empty for years at the taxpayer’s expense.

Thurston County, WA, Wayne County, MI, and Thomson Prosion in Illinois are three places used by the Prison Policy Initiative as examples of the contemporary argument.

In 2008, Thurston County accepted a bid for “the cutting-edge $45 million Accountability and Restitution Center jail complex,” despite voters rejecting an $88 million bond initiative to fund a new jail four years prior. This complex was finished in 2010, but sat empty for six years, because the county did not consider the staff needed to run it in the budget.

PPI said this cost the taxpayers roughly $430,000 annually, almost $3 million dollars over the six years. Three years later, the county approved a jail expansion featuring a 40-bed “flex unit” with “cells that could be used in different ways as needs change.” This jail expansion would cost anywhere from $19 million to $25 million.

Similarly in Wayne County, said PPI, a $300 million, “state of the art,” 2,192-bed jail began being built in 2011. Merely two years later, the project was already $91 million over budget, and was abandoned. This later led to the indictment of three Wayne County officials for lying about the project’s cost. While the jail sat incomplete and empty, the project was costing taxpayers $1 million per month to maintain.

Thomson Prison, noted PPI, while not a jail, is similar to those in Thurston County and Wayne County. This prison was sold to the federal government in 2012 after sitting empty for 11 years at the taxpayer’s expense, due to budgetary constraints that made it unable to be staffed. This prison was built in 2001 for $145 million.

Lastly, writes PPI, the compassionate argument details that new jail construction is necessary to treat incarcerated people more humanely.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “counties cite the need to be compliant with ADA requirements, providers of mental health services, or substance use treatment as reasons to expand,” which repackages incarceration as care.

This can lead to health services in the community having funds taken from them and reallocated to jails. The Prison Policy Initiative states that this is problematic when jails fail to deliver on these promises, which they regularly do.

McLean County, IL and Broome County, NY, are two counties that exhibit these issues, said PPI.

A 2015 jail needs assessment in McLean County called for more space for housing people with mental health needs. Following this, the county spent $43.5 million for a jail with a specialized “Community Crisis Stabilization Facility” in 2017.

However, a few years later people with mental health issues were being held in the booking area, which is a practice the new jail was supposed to terminate, and were being held at jails outside the county. This prevented many individuals from “benefitting” in the county’s alternative to community-based crisis intervention, writes PPI.

Better medical care was a promise made by Broome County to secure $6.8 million to expand its jail in 2015, notes PPI. However, the Prison Policy Initiative notes there was little effort to deliver on this promise once the jail expansion finished, and Broome County was sued multiple times for medical negligence from 2010 to 2022, as it maintained the same “dubious” medical provider, Correctional Medical Care.

PPI said many of the suits involved deaths, and the practices were so bad that the New York State Commission on Corrections’ Medical Review Board criticized Correctional Medical Care for “egregious lapses in medical care” in a 2018 report.

The Initiative states “more incarcerated people died in the five years after ground broke on jail expansion than in the five years before.”

Incarceration itself is inherently harmful, asserts the Prison Policy Initiative, and can lead to a condition called Post-Incarceration Syndrome, a syndrome similar to PTSD, and one that can trigger drug use.

The Prison Policy Initiative concludes an effective way to bring down jail populations is to reform the way court systems treat people accused of crimes, and also reducing total jail capacity and focusing on community-based care are two other ways that help solve the over-capacity issue.

About The Author

Julie is a third year at UC Davis majoring in Communications and Psychology with a minor in Philosophy. She hopes to advocate for women's reproductive rights and make the justice system fairer for sexual assault survivors.

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