Helping Local Communities Understand Jails

Article excerpt

Jail practitioners are frustrated by the misconceptions public officials and community members have about local jails. Comments often made by jail staff include:

* "My county board members don't know anything about jails."

* "Most people don't even know the difference between jails and prisons."

* "The public doesn't have a clue what running a jail is about."

* "How does the council expect us to operate with so few staff? What do they think we do, anyway?"

As jail practitioners know, this lack of understanding is a disservice not only to the jail itself, but also to the community it serves.

When public officials and local communities do not understand the role of jails, their functions and the liability inherent in those functions, they cannot make effective decisions in three critical areas, ultimately affecting public safety. First, officials cannot make effective decisions on resources necessary to operate jails. This often results in jails receiving insufficient resources to carry out even basic functions. This, in turn, results in poorly operated and dangerous jails--a direct threat to staff, inmates and community safety.

Second, officials cannot make effective decisions about how jails are used in terms of who comes to jail, why and for how long. Often, they do not know who jails currently hold, or if everyone in jail needs to be there--or could be better-placed in a pretrial diversion program or sentenced to a non-jail sanctioning option. For certain offenders, such alternatives may be less expensive than jail and more likely to enhance public safety. In the absence of carefully considered decisions about a jail's use, crowding often becomes an issue, which further taxes already limited resources and, again, threatens staff, inmate and community safety.

Finally, when public officials and local communities do not understand jails, they cannot contribute to decisions about the philosophy by which their jails should operate. Will jails focus only on detaining inmates? Will they offer services to help inmates integrate into their communities upon release? What is the relationship of jails to other community agencies and organizations? To what degree should jails operate in isolation from these organizations? Should jails be an integral part of a community strategy to better-equip inmates to be productive citizens? Only when public officials and the community understand jails can they answer these questions, develop a jail operating philosophy and ensure that all aspects of jail management and operations conform to that philosophy. …