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January 5, 2006 - Centre Daily Times (PA)

More Attention Should Be Paid To County Prisons

By Rosemary L. Gido

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The recent Associated Press series on Pennsylvania's county prisons documented again the low status jails have occupied historically in the hierarchy of correctional solutions to public safety at the local level.

The "gaol," transplanted to the American soil from an English model, has been shown throughout history to be characterized by acute and chronic overcrowding, understaffing, unhealthy and unsanitary conditions and, most importantly, underfunding.

That the articles illustrated great variation in these attributes in Pennsylvania county prisons is no surprise given the low priority county tax revenues, local politicians and the general public have traditionally given to supporting prisons.

My research on county jails in New York state from 1920 to 1960, utilizing New York State Commission of Correction inspection records and statistics for that period, showed that communities enlarged their jails only when there were extreme overcrowding pressures (immigrant population swells or federal prisoners from the Volstead Act) or (rarely for this time period) court interventions.

The typical "Band-Aid" solution was to use outside cell space such as hallways, gymnasiums and even chapels to address chronic overcrowding situations. Because of the lack of local county funding, jails were often expanded in the short term by building annexes or dormitories.

Rarely did local county governments respond to the New York State Commission of Correction's threats (as the state's regulatory agency from 1922) to close down local facilities.

In fact, one large urban county jail continued to ignore the commission's calls for improvements for a period of 65 years-until the old jail burned and a new one had to be built.

Across all states, new jails have been built and old jails enlarged through the infusion of state funding from bonding initiatives. Yet, in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States, it is criminal-justice policies that have placed the most pressure on county jails and their administrators and staff.

The war on drugs and accompanying mandatory minimum-sentencing laws, fueled by media and political "lock 'em up and throw away the key" campaigns of the past 25 years, have filled our county jails and state prison systems with substance abusers and parole violators and more women than ever in the history of our country.

As 2006 begins, prisons large and small, rural and urban, struggle to house and separate, feed and clothe, program and habilitate pretrial and sentenced, local, state and federal detainees and inmates, while balancing public safety and inmate and staff security and safety, using a model that has largely never worked.

Yet the failure of many of Pennsylvania's county prisons to meet inspection standards is not the real story.

Here in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of national model institutions of freedom, the struggle to establish legitimate federal, state and local government order and authority resulted in the creation of penal institutions that were, by 18th century standards, benign and reformative.

The Walnut Street Jail and the Eastern State Penitentiary came to exemplify a new nation's efforts to punish under the protection of law.

Unfortunately, over time, these well-intentioned institutions were stripped of their reformative intent. Over time, punishment as the denial of individual liberty has come to focus primarily on the most marginal of Americans-the under-educated, the under-employed, minorities and immigrants, the mentally ill, homeless and the addicted.

Indeed, the United States leads all other democratic nations in its rate of incarcerating marginal people.

Building more high-tech prisons in Pennsylvania will not address the critical issues of who is in our jails, the high rate of jail recidivism, and what resources our communities can offer to prisoners who return to their home communities each day.

This is Pennsylvania's real "brain drain."

Rosemary L. Gido, of Boalsburg, professor of criminology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is a board member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, editor of The Prison Journal and former director of policy of the New York State Commission of Correction.

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