Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Outdated Rural Jails Are Packed, Troubled ; Tougher Laws, Sentences Bring Big-Prison Problems to Nation's Smaller

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Outdated Rural Jails Are Packed, Troubled ; Tougher Laws, Sentences Bring Big-Prison Problems to Nation's Smaller

Article excerpt

In every US state, jail crowding is a fact of life - and one that appears not to be eased by any amount of prison building.

But across the landscapes of rural America, the trend is claiming new territory: Small county jails, with antiquated and understaffed facilities, are packing in inmates like never before.

It's a situation that's veering toward crisis proportions, some say, with the potential for increased violence and health problems.

"We have more inmates coming into jails than ever before, and the vast majority of jails in the US are small rural jails," says Steve Ingley, of Hagerstown, Md., executive director of the American Jail Association. "If you're at 150 percent capacity, and your jail was built in 1900, and you have no new technology, how do you deal with that?"

In many cases, not very well, he says.

As tougher laws and mandatory sentences intersect with crumbling infrastructure and limited resources, the strain on jails is hitting unprecedented levels. A record number of Americans - some 2 million - are incarcerated. Yet while prisons - which generally house longer- term inmates - are funded at the state level, most of the nation's 3,201 county jails are paid for by local taxpayers. And for a growing number of counties, the cost of operating a jail is prohibitive.

In rural Costilla County, the poorest county in Colorado, the recent solution was to shut down the jail. The dilapidated 12-cell facility - last remodeled in 1964 - posed health and safety risks to inmates, and was chronically overcrowded.

"We don't have the tax base in the county to fund a jail," says Undersheriff Lou Pugliese. "We don't even have portable radios for our officers."

Now, the department drives its inmates 100 or more miles to jails in neighboring counties. "It puts a real strain on the department," he says.

Costilla County's troubles are not unique. Forty of Colorado's 62 counties struggle with the same problem.

"Jails have been required to do a lot more, with a whole lot less," says Mr. Ingley. "They have a huge responsibility, without the resources. If we're going to continue on this path of putting away people, we're going to have to deal with this."

Ingley says it's troubling that states leave the cost of running jails to local jursidictions.

Some states have recognized the problem. West Virginia and Kentucky have moved toward a system of regional jails that serve several counties. And other states are experimenting more with jail alternatives, such as home arrest and third-party custody.

Still, even as US crime rates fall, incarceration rates continue to climb. And the prison-building boom of the 1990s failed to make a significant dent in jail crowding. California has the largest corrections system in the country and spends more on prisons than on education. …

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