Commonwealth Jails in Crisis

Popularly in conversation, little distinction is drawn between prison and jail. They are, in fact and in function, different, but not sufficiently so to be meaningful to those who are incarcerated in either. (Prison populations tend to be incarcerated for more serious crimes and for longer periods of time.) Recently, however, public interest in the nation’s incarcerated population has received attention as well as becoming an issue in political campaigns. In addition to the staggering number of individuals incarcerated, the economic and social costs are bewilderingly astronomical.

The purpose of imprisonment has changed little from ancient eras as offenses of law in Hammurabi’s Code (1750 B.C.) were almost exclusively centered on the concept of lex talionis (“the law of retaliation”), whereby people were punished as a form of vengeance, often by the victims themselves. The British system of transportation of lawbreakers to foreign countries never took root in the United States.

Jails (or gaols as they were known in England) were conducted as business ventures, containing both felons and debtors; the latter were often housed with their wives and younger children. The gaolers made their money by charging the inmates for food, drink, and other services. In a vast majority of counties in the US, the management of jails reflects this tradition in the person of local sheriffs.

The Commonwealth maintains two types of jails: local under county sheriffs and regional, serving a number of counties and managed under state law by a board or authority composed of local sheriffs and county representatives. Responsibilities for jails –construction, operation, certification, funding, etc.– are spread across multiple state and local agencies. The state provides substantial funding for jails, but other than certifying and inspecting the facilities, it has little direct authority over operations. In effect, as one study indicated, there is no state “system.”

A number of critics have characterized the public’s lack of interest and appreciation of jails as being attributed to an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. At the same time, festering conditions in jails, along with horror stories of treatment of prisoners and the effect upon families, continues to enter the civic dialogue. Often that discussion is exacerbated by inmate deaths.

Over the last five years, 51 suicides have been reported in Commonwealth jails along with other inmate fatalities caused by inadequate medical care. An Associated Press report  of jail and medical examiner records (August 2019) shows that nearly half of those took their own lives within the first 10 days of incarceration, a period experts say is critical for intervention because of the despair many inmates experience when they are first locked up.

Suicide has long been the leading cause of death in jails around the country, reaching a high of 50 deaths for every 100,000 inmates in 2014, the latest year for which data are available.

Suicide has long been the leading cause of death in jails around the country, reaching a high of 50 deaths for every 100,000 inmates in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. Jail deaths have steadily increased since state psychiatric hospitals began closing in the 1970s, converting jails into makeshift mental health facilities. In recent years, lockups have also been inundated by opioid addicts, who research has shown may be more likely to attempt suicide.

In Virginia, the rate was 40 suicide deaths for every 100,000 inmates in 2014. The aggregated five-year rate for 2014 to 2018 in Virginia was 35 deaths for every 100,000 inmates. Although state regulations require that inmates have medical and mental health screenings upon admission, those assessments vary greatly across Virginia’s 58 local and regional jails.

Deaths in Virginia jails came under increased state oversight in 2015 after a 25-year-old mentally ill man died of heart failure accompanied by severe weight loss at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail. In July, Portsmouth City Jail was placed on probation for a year after the state Board of Corrections found that it had violated regulations requiring medical screening and supervision of two inmates, one of whom killed himself and the other who died of a drug overdose. The investigation found that deputies at the jail did not properly check on the inmates and then falsified jail logs. Both employees were fired. An immediate response to this phenomenon, one concludes, is increased observation of inmates whose profiles indicate self-harming behavior. But, that’s another problem for Virginia’s criminal justice system–staffing.

Recruiting and retaining prison guards for Virginia’s jails has become expensive and frustrating. While county sheriffs have less difficulty, retention at regional jails is experiencing departure rates as high as 16% in a fiscal year, as reported by the Prince William Times (August 20, 2019). Suicide watches require oversight on a 24/7 basis and become more demanding as the inmate population increases. Authorities cite a number of causes, including higher wages offered by other law enforcement agencies. While depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are among national reasons, no evidence is available for Virginia jails.

Some jails now use a 43-question medical and mental health assessment and a nurse screens inmates along with a new digital logging system to make it impossible for anyone to falsify the intervals at which inmates are checked. Seven inmates at the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority’s four jails killed themselves between 2014 and 2018. Four of them did so within seven days of entering jail, after mental health screenings.

Some criminal justice reforms such as diversion programs may reduce both overcrowding and exposure to the persistent violent behavior in jails. But what is required demands a more global approach, including review of mandatory sentencing (e.g., the three-strike laws), sentencing in nonviolent offenses, and the school-to-jail syndrome, among others. One financial element of the criminal justice dysfunction in Virginia is the $38.6 million taxpayer must spend for lawsuits reported for 2016. That’s a metric that gets the public’s attention.

Categories: Issues, Local, National

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