Undoing Institutionalized Bias in Jails is Worthy and Complicated

County correctional facilities need good policies and state partnership to fulfill the needs of detainees.  

It is inarguably a challenge for a government to confine individuals against their will while managing the care and rehabilitation of what is statistically some of the most vulnerable members of society. Jail and prison populations disproportionately represent lower-income individuals, minorities, those found to have a substance use disorder, and people who struggle with mental illness. All detainees suffer the consequences of a system originally built for biological men, and that originally had little considered what science and society know today to be vital elements of rehabilitation. It’s a systemic problem with serious consequences at the local, state, and federal levels – a problem that deserves practical solutions that are able to grapple with the realities these facilities face.

Legislative proposals often miss the mark even with a noble cause, especially when efforts are being made to implement equitable practices in jails that are a product of institutional bias and, despite great efforts and intent, are still caked in the residue. State policy solutions that seek to plug holes and apply band-aids can not overcome the barriers locals are facing with regard to funding, workforce, and spacing while they tackle these issues. They can not do it without state partnership.

One foundational problem seems to recur when the centralized perspective conflates the larger, more visible, state prisons, with the smaller county jails. A good starting point for clarity on how policies can be effective would be to go through just what exactly these facilities do – the who, why, and when of state and local detention centers. This article is the first in a series that will cover how local detention centers differ from state facilities, what the needs are through an equity lens, and how legislative proposals can meet those challenges with practical solutions.

This installment will focus mainly on the topline differences between state and local detention centers. The differences at a glance can be found in the duration of stay, type of offense, and reason for the stay. Of note is that the type of offense and reason for stay are not exactly the same things because in a local facility, you can have two people with the same offense, but one could afford to pay bail and go home.

For the purpose of this article, suffice it to say county jails typically confine persons who are pre-trial detainees i.e. presumed innocent and not convicted of a crime, or individuals serving sentences of less than a year. State facilities in contrast house individuals with significantly higher levels of qualifying offenses such as homicide, assault, robbery, and sex crimes. County detainees are often in for low-level offenses such as non-violent felonies and misdemeanors, with the average stay fluctuating between 25-35 days. At the state level, the average stay is anywhere from 5-6 years. Across all state facilities, about 17,000 inmates are in custody. By comparison across all 24 jurisdictions, an average total is a little over 7,000.  Smaller counties can average anywhere from 30-80 individuals, whereas larger counties are looking at 300-600. This is mostly to say, county facilities are significantly smaller and see a lot more turnover than state facilities.

When it comes to policy, it is important to acknowledge that correctional facilities often face realities that are hard for outsiders to understand i.e. anyone who has never been admitted into or worked in a facility which, to be fair, is most people. The realities can be hard to reconcile considering how vulnerable incarcerated populations are in conjunction with the need for order and security when it comes to keeping these facilities safe. This is particularly a challenge when legislative proposals can strain resources while betraying a general understanding of how local jails operate. This approach does a disservice to the sometimes valuable and well-intentioned goals of state-wide initiatives, which is why it is important to delineate the two in order to take the next step of furthering effective policies.

Future installments will cover examples and outcomes from current and proposed legislation. This past session there were a number of bills focusing on reforming various functions of correctional facilities and included county-run detention centers with little consideration for how vastly different the populations and functions are from the state programs. Trying to fit a square into a circle, is an analogy that comes to mind, but that is not, by any means, to say it is an easy problem to solve.

Looking at the history of mental healthcare and mental health treatment, it has taken a very long time for more just and equitable strategies to be demanded, researched, substantiated, and deployed – society as a whole is still working through these changes. Jails started with a focus on housing, not functionally rehabilitating, self-identified biological men. Even in Maryland now, self-identified males make up more than 95% of the inmate population. Along the way separate facilities were created for women’s prisons in response to those specific needs. Flash forward, we now understand that 63% of incarcerated populations have a mental illness and or a substance use disorder, requiring treatment in facilities that had not accounted for those needs. Trans, nonbinary, and intersex individuals face a similar reality, that jails are literally not built with their needs or existence in mind. And while most, if not all facilities in the country have come a long way from the horrors of the past, it is no secret that facilities at every level still struggle with the nuances of identities.

The progress circle does not fit into the current square. If you shrink it to fit, like policies typically try, the mental, behavioral, emotional, and physical care of all detainees will fall into those caverns of unfulfilled needs in the corners. Finger-pointing, while politically expedient, is not the most effective strategy when it comes to finding solutions, especially when the culprit at this point is a “Higgs-esqe” field lacking any anatomy at all. Everyone in it is subject to its energy. Greater focus, flexibility, and investment could be a preferred model if policymakers are open to embracing the variability of county facilities and the challenges they are facing while trying to meet the needs of all inmates.