The Future of Incarceration in America

How Do You Sell a Jail?

With ongoing demands to downsize, figuring out what to do with America's massive inmate population is one of the greatest challenges to criminal justice reform.

by John Surico
Dec 12 2016, 12:00am

Illustrations by Dola Sun

Building a jail or prison is unlike any other construction project. No matter what it's replacing, or how fancy the building might look from the outside, there's a good chance the people living near its eventual location aren't going to be happy about it. When officials announce plans to erect a new hall of incarceration, it's often just a matter of time before a public campaign is launched to stop it by any means necessary.

In the United States, the reigning world capital of mass incarceration, this routine plays out with alarming frequency. Take, for example, Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 2009, the state's governor proposed building a treatment and detention center for young girls who run away from home in a highly residential area in the city. Neighbors quickly formed the "Derail the Jail Committee," citing concerns of public safety and real estate value, and last year, the site became a playground and dog park instead.

NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) has proven a reliable roadblock for local jails, where a significant chunk of America's inmates are held. But as cities and states look to downsize their incarcerated populations—whether due to budgetary concerns, or a larger desire to keep human beings outside of cages—the idea of bringing jails closer to communities is gaining currency. Inmates should be near relatives and legal services, advocates increasingly argue, so as to boost their chances of a successful reentry.

Even though Donald Trump prevailed in the presidential election while running on a tough-on-crime platform that often criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, municipalities across the country still command space to explore alternatives in the coming years. And with ongoing demands to downsize, figuring out what to do with massive inmate populations is one of the greatest challenges ahead.

In a 2006 Department of Justice document called "Building Community Support for New Jail Construction," the question is posed: "How can we sell the jail?"

If governments want to build a new jail, the pitch to the public needs to be honed in a way that appeals rather than angers. It's not a sympathetic subject, like building a school, so an effort must be made to raise awareness of what a jail actually is: a part of the community, the author notes. Inside of those walls are neighbors—neighbors who, without the right to vote, might even boost your political power, perverse as that may seem.

"I would argue that most people would want individuals treated the way they'd want one of their loved ones treated."—Fred Patrick

"I think getting people to better understand [that] when we talk about jails, what we're talking about are folks who have been alleged to have done something, and we believe in the system of folks having their days in court," Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, told VICE. "Well, many of these folks haven't."

"I would argue that most people would want individuals treated the way they'd want one of their loved ones treated," he added, "which would be with respect and human dignity, with access to the programs and services that allow them to leave better off than they were when they arrived."

Patrick used to be deputy commissioner for New York City's Department of Correction. During most of his tenure, he noted, the city had a community jail in four out of the five boroughs—some of which were closed as jail populations decreased—and the only complaint he can recall was the constant traffic of court buses.

Take, for example, the Tombs, a jail in the heart of downtown Manhattan that hasn't exactly scared off investment in the neighborhood. Or the Brooklyn House of Detention, which is nestled in a gentrifying neighborhood. Then there's Chicago's enormous Cook County Jail, which, according to some reports, has actually made nearby citizens feel more safe.

"When you tell someone, 'That's a jail,' people have all of these strange thoughts, mostly from fictional accounts on television, and all the sensationalism," Patrick said. "The reality is, in most places where you have jails and other correctional facilities in the community, it's generally not a problem."

Still, as talk of replacing New York's massive Rikers Island complex with neighborhood alternatives accelerates, NIMBY issues are sure to come into play. Former NYC correction commissioner Martin Horn actually tried to eliminate the massive complex back in 2006, but when he took the idea to the public, as he recently told the New York Times, he was "buzz-sawed."

With that in mind, the concept of public safety has to be redefined, according to Patrick. "We're sort of stipulating that jails should be safe, that their operations should be accountable and transparent, and be focused on human dignity and preparing folks for release—and, more important, success upon release," he said. "That's very much about public safety."

"I think the jails of the future have no walls."—Nancy La Vigne

When I brought up community blowback to Nancy La Vigne, a former DOJ researcher who focused on the prison system and now heads up the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, she almost scoffed.

"When you think about what the future will look like, I think it's going to be increasingly electronic, and I think a lot of that will render these NIMBY issues moot," she said. "I say that because there's an increasing body of evidence and data that suggests that people can be released safely, and, arguably, the vast majority of them should not be confined at all.

"So I think the notion that the jail of the future is still a place of confinement, with bars and razor wire, is an antiquated one," La Vigne said. "I think the jails of the future have no walls."

In San Francisco last December, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted against plans for a local jail after sustained protest, with one supervisor calling it "a return to an era of mass incarceration, an era San Francisco is trying to leave behind." Instead, the board voted to use funds for pretrial diversion and mental health services.

Similar fights have broken out all over, from Philadelphia to Ithaca, New York. Champaign County in Illinois has eliminated money for jails in its budget entirely. So could a NIMBY attitude about jails shift to one where people are less and less interested in jailing fellow humans, period?

One of the more recent battlegrounds has been Seattle, where local officials pushed for a juvenile detention facility at the site of an existing jail. The proposal was greeted by a serious backlash from civil and human rights organizations alike.

"Fundamentally, putting a kid in jail is shown to have no positive impact and have tons of negative impact for the kid and the family," Knoll Lowney, the attorney who recently filed a lawsuit against the city on the advocates' behalf, told me. "So it's not an evidence-based approach, and basically ruins lives."

These sentiments demonstrate a dramatic change in both the tone and public awareness surrounding jails, as concerns of mass incarceration have gone mainstream. And one election isn't going to reverse that.

"Twenty years ago, when I published an article on racist incarceration and crack laws, there were people working hard on it then," Lowney continued. "But I think the broader discussion has only happened more recently. Billions of dollars and millions of lives ruined later—now there's a bigger discussion."

This article is part of the VICE series The Future of Incarceration. Read the rest of the package here.

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Criminal Justice
John Surico
Dola Sun
Future of Incarceration