The principal cause of overcrowded jails and all their attending evils, is the exorbitant bails placed on the poor. Three-fourths of the all people held in New York City jails are simply awaiting trial. They are there because they cannot afford bail. Only 7 percent are white.
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Then there is the cost. Estimates vary, but they are all high. As reported by the city’s Independent Budget Office last year, it cost on average $167,731 to feed, house and guard each inmate in 2012. This includes costs paid from budgets outside the Department of Corrections (DOC). When the New York City comptroller calculated the cost for 2013, using only the DOC budget, the estimate was still around $100,000.
Who benefits from overcrowded jails? Corrections officers, court employees, judges, prosecutors, legal services, vendors, medical personnel and everyone in the chain of criminal in-justice.
How does overcrowding impact prisoners? As one who experienced this in the ’60s and ’70s , I speak as an expert. I was held in the Tombs, Rikers Island, Harts Island, Bronx County Jail, Brooklyn House of Detention and Valhalla jail in Westchester County. Whew! In every one of these jails the overwhelming demographic was poor black, brown and beige in a cage.
Excessive bail was the primary reason they were there. You could go to sleep in a cell with two occupied beds and wake up with five people in the cell. Poor people had to grin and bear it. The standard bail was from $10,000 to $100,000. The rich could make these bails out of their pockets. The poor? Forget about it . . . their option is to settle in and hope for a bail reduction or a plea bargain.
Next, we need to consider that within jails, access to simple resources like the telephone, television and food is minimal; there is a climate of deprivation. Lack of access to these three limited resources led to 90 percent of the violence in jails – in fact, struggles over them led to the creation of a gang culture inside. Groups were formed to do what corrections officers failed to do. That is how the Crips, Bloods and Latin Kings were born on the East Coast. This gang culture traveled from the jails to the prisons and to the streets. Generations have been lost because of it.
Putting young people in jail means immersing them in an environment of total control – powerless and alone. They band together in gangs for survival and buy into the gang mentality, a mentality then taken from jail to home – or to prison – and replicated. Jail is both a violent institution itself and an incitement to violence.
The role of bail plays a critical role in creating the demographics of the jailed population. Between the police and the judges, who set the bail, the outcome of black, brown and beige bodies filling the jails is guaranteed. Prosecutors, the supposed servants of the people, are the lynchpins (with the emphasis on lynch) of this process; they request unreasonable bails knowing full well that the defendants are unable to pay them. The courts, that is judges, then keep the process moving. The result: the hellholes that are the Rikers Islands of America.
An alternative to bail for property, drug and other nonviolent crimes would dramatically reduce jail populations and the expense of housing citizens who have yet to be convicted of the crimes for which they are being held!
The presumption of innocence should be respected for all citizens, not just the rich. Theoretically, the criminal justice system is our system. Police, jail guards, prosecutors, judges and all who work in that system technically work for us – we pay them! They should be our servants, not our masters.
So, wake up! Let’s straighten out this horror show. There should be neither bail nor jail for nonviolent defendants who cannot afford to pay bail. Shrink Rikers Island down to one cell block and build affordable housing fueled by solar power on the unused land. Basta Ya!