Jails and prisons make critically important contributions to society. They not only protect communities from criminal conduct but also have the potential to improve the health and safety of inmates. These facilities, sometimes the first places where addicts or the mentally ill get treatment, can allow people to rebuild and refocus their lives. But intelligent federal reinvestment is necessary to realize these broader humanitarian capacities.
Prompted by the spread of Covid-19, many states and localities turned away arrestees who typically would have been admitted to jail. Some released inmates wholesale. In 2020, annual admissions to local jails fell an astonishing 16 percent (from 10.3 million to 8.7 million), partly driven by massive reductions in arrests. Daily jail populations had dropped a whopping 25 percent by the midpoint of that year. State and federal prisons, too, released inmates early; many stopped accepting inmates from county jails. Prison populations shrank a remarkable 8 percent, with more than 100,000 inmates released from state and federal confinement, often with no meaningful supervision.
As incarceration fell, crime rose—especially violent crime. And conditions within jails and prisons deteriorated drastically. As Charles Fain Lehman has observed, policymakers typically prioritize “austerity thinking” over public-safety considerations when managing these institutions.
Start with jails. While modern jails are often clean, well managed, and safe, many older ones are obsolete and desolate, imperiling the welfare of both inmates and guards. Several states haven’t expanded prison capacity, and half of state inmates may be housed in local and county jails. Jails that hold increasingly dangerous and violent criminals in increasingly crowded conditions should be renovated or rebuilt.
What would modernization entail? Any jail should be able to segregate dangerous inmates from low-risk inmates, contain state-of-the-art surveillance systems to ensure safety and to collect and share crime intelligence, and boast modern IT systems for data collection and online court hearings. They should also have enough space to house on-site social services, such as drug and alcohol counseling.
Prisons face similar challenges. Most state prisons were built decades ago. Some need replacement, others modernization. Infusing up-to-date technologies into prisons will yield safety, intelligence, and savings. Doing so will also expand inmates’ opportunities for education, family visits, counseling services, and social reentry. Legal proceedings could also be streamlined, producing faster justice, while reducing costs.
Excellent at preventing escape, prisons generally have proved incapable of preparing inmates for life after release. Prisons have traditionally been constructed and run as cheaply as possible, often leading to inmates and staff coexisting in socially and psychologically deprived environments. Certain prisons, such as those with extremely dangerous inmates, may need to be environmentally austere for security reasons—but most do not.
Rehabilitation efforts in jails and prisons have generally failed. Just about any intervention is now labeled “rehabilitation,” from prayer circles and acupuncture to meditation and social-justice classes. Research shows, however, that intensive cognitive-behavioral therapy, offered by trained and motivated counselors, creates the best chance for offender rehabilitation. Jails and prisons should focus resources only on programs that show evidence of effectiveness.
These institutions can work better. Reinvesting in jails and prisons should be a national priority.