In Rural Areas, a “Quiet Jail-Building Boom” Is Taking Place

I live in Champaign County, the heart of the Illinois cornfields. Our somewhat liberal-minded county of 200,000 is home to the flagship campus of the University of Illinois, the “Fighting Illini.” But our county has another distinction: While Black people only comprise 13 percent of our population, they consistently make up 50-71 percent of those in the local jail, resulting in one of the highest racial discrepancies in the country.

For the past decade, rather than attempt to correct this gross inequity, local authorities have punted various plans to build a new jail. So far, the community, led by the grassroots organizing of Build Programs Not Jails, has blocked these efforts. However, the battle is not over. In September 2019, architects from Reifsteck Reid came to a county board meeting packing PowerPoint visuals of their grand plan for a $47 million revamp of our jail, likely the largest capital project in the county’s history. The architects, backed by newly elected Sheriff Dustin Heuerman, claimed the jail needed a mental health service, increased educational space and a more accommodating visiting area. Back when this all started in 2011, the sheriff wanted a new jail to “preserve public safety” and “fight crime.” Now he is concerned about providing services to the “inmates.” New battle lines are emerging.

Champaign is not the only small county where authorities have a burning urge for jail building. While jail populations in Chicago, Philadelphia and most big metropolitan areas are plummeting, as Jasmine Heiss, the director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards project, told Truthout, there is a “quiet jail-building boom” taking place in rural counties and medium-sized metropolitan areas.

In a new report, the Vera Institute noted that since 2013, jail incarceration rates have fallen by 22 percent in major urban areas while increasing by 26 percent in rural jurisdictions and 6 percent in small and medium-sized metropolitan areas; rates in urban areas have declined to 165 per 100,000, slightly more than half the figure for rural counties and 60 percent of the level in medium-sized metros. Heiss estimated that in the 11 states she tracks, at least 100 jails are planned. While criminal justice reform might be grabbing the attention of the mainstream media and campaigning politicians, the carceral reality for those of us in the heartland looks a little bit different.

Indiana: Ground Zero

The boom clearly has geographical spread. Remarkably, a Google search for “Greene County Jail construction” yielded three hits — a recently completed jail in Indiana; a Missouri project slated to begin in the spring of 2020; and a controversial facility in upstate New York where funding has been approved, but local activists are attempting to halt the ground-breaking.

Expansion of jail capacity does more than lock people up. In many counties, jails are the largest capital expenditure in the budget. A decision to build a jail, according to Vera Institute Research Associate Jack Norton, can shape a county’s development pattern for a generation by draining funds from social services and other non-carceral programs. In some counties, jails are central to the economic development plan. Bodies for jail intake are coming not only from increased local drug arrests, but through marketing facilities to new niches such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, holding individuals for the U.S. Marshals Service, or housing people from nearby jurisdictions where the cells are filled.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing for those of us in Illinois is that our neighboring state, Indiana, is ground zero for jail building. The Vera Institute estimates that 72 percent of Indiana’s jails are overcrowded. According to Heiss, 40 percent of Indiana’s 92 counties are either building jails or are in the advanced stages of planning jail construction. Here, as in many states, two factors have contributed to increased jail populations: the opioid crisis and the consequences of criminal justice reform.

The link between the opioid crisis and jail building reflects the lack of services in small counties. Treatment programs and mental health facilities are often non-existent; jail diversion options like drug courts are limited at best. In addition, the drug warrior mentality persists within much of law enforcement. But in the long run, the consequences of criminal legal reform may play an even bigger role in jail growth. The centerpiece of the Indiana reform process is House Bill 1006, passed in 2015.

Then-Gov. Mike Pence championed 1006, boasting during the 2016 election he had signed criminal justice reform and was “very proud about it.” HB 1006 did two things. First, it eased penalties for low-level felonies. Under this law, anyone serving a sentence of less than two years must do their time in a jail. Previously, the limit on a county jail sentence was one year. Second, the Act levelled harsher penalties for so-called violent offenses, upping the percentage of time served on long sentences from 50 percent to 75 percent. The bill passed the Indiana house 97 to 0.

In the two years after the bill was passed, the state’s jail population rose by 32 percent as those with low-level felonies left the state prison system. While counties were taking in more bodies from the prison system, the state was reimbursing local authorities at $35 per person per day for these new arrivals. This was approximately 35 percent of the actual costs to local authorities, putting more economic pressure on counties. The shortfall and overflowing jail populations forced sheriffs to scramble for money to cover increasing jailing costs while taking on the bigger hunt of raising capital for jail construction. Moreover, while HB 1006 did reduce the prison population initially with the release of people with low-level felonies, for the last two years, the prison population has been rising. With those entering the system now staying behind bars for longer, that prison population will likely continue to creep up.

Indianapolis, a medium-sized metro, provides a template of how law enforcement used the reform moment to expand its reach. Authorities chose to deal with jail overcrowding through a dual strategy — securing a bond for a 3,000-bed jail at a cost of over $500 million and pushing people out of the jail onto electronic monitors. According to documents Truthout received from Marion County via a Freedom of Information Act request, Indianapolis now has more than 8,000 people on ankle monitors annually — more than any other city in the country.

Indiana’s restructuring has even prompted new hybrid jail formulations, such as proposed Regional Holding Facilities, which would hold overflow population from local jails, at times as a temporary solution while jail construction was taking place.

While sheriffs in Indiana are jumping on the construction bandwagon, investment in a jail is not risk-free. In the early 2000s, 12 Illinois counties entered into contracts with Chicago’s Cook County to house the overflow from a then-exploding jail population. However, in the last five years, the population in Cook County Jail has fallen by 40 percent. Piatt County joined that trend by building a 76-bed jail to capture the Chicago market. As of last month, only 10 beds were occupied in Piatt County Jail. The mantra of “build it and they will come” doesn’t always ring true.

Moreover, while jail building may be the dominant trend, popular sentiment doesn’t support this growth. Norton’s field work reiterates the findings of a 2018 survey that jail construction rates a distant last in terms of popular priorities for investment. Votes on jail bond issues echo these sentiments. In recent years, voters have consistently defeated referendums for jail construction. In Pueblo, Colorado, voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax hike slated to contribute to jail building. In Douglas County, Kansas, a local coalition led by Justice Matters also mobilized the electorate to vote “no” on a proposed jail. In my own Champaign County, a 2016 referendum to increase sales tax to finance jail building was defeated 2 to 1. The activists’ slogan, “the sales tax is a jails tax,” resonated across party lines.

Moving Beyond Jail Fights

Electoral victories slow down local incarceration machines and buoy the spirit of struggle. However, lasting change requires building resistance that connects criminal legal system issues to other manifestations of structural poverty and inequality. This means recognizing the intersectionality of those impacted by incarceration. The rural poor who are captured by jails are also likely to be housing insecure, have unmet physical and mental health needs, be unemployed or under-employed, and be substance-dependent. They are often Black, Latinx, Native American or LGBT. The fundamental demand in halting jail building is to reallocate the resources spent on carceral construction to meet the needs of the poorest sectors of the population. In the absence of transformation, this sector of the population will continue to be criminalized for their poverty and locked up in increasingly modern hi-tech facilities.