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Go Straight to Jail

The new geography of mass incarceration

There is a quiet jail boom occurring across the United States, particularly in the smaller cities and rural counties most often overlooked or mischaracterized by national media. And as county after county has been building bigger and bigger jails, and as more and more people have been detained and incarcerated, the nature of jail incarceration—the way that the different levels of the state are using jails—has changed. Jails are increasingly being used as immigrant detention centers for federal agencies like ICE and the U.S. Marshals. In many states, Departments of Correction utilize jails as a decentralized state prison system. And at the county and city level, jails are still a central and expanding infrastructure of the local criminal justice system. When they build it, they fill it, and counties across the country have been building bigger jails and planning for a future of more criminalization, detention, and incarceration.

Whatever the claims of jail boosters, jails are sites of immiseration and death. While jails are often touted by local elites as a necessary response to growing poverty and health disparities, research demonstrates that jail incarceration—and the concentration of resources in sheriff’s departments—impoverishes communities and destroys health. Whether they are called jails, detention centers, justice centers, justice campuses, borough-based jails, or county prisons, county and city jails form a diffuse, locally governed network of sites in an ongoing class war in the United States and beyond. They comprise a local and flexible infrastructure for the imposition of austerity, the ongoing entrenchments of state racism, and the reproduction of capitalist social relations, and are an expanding capacity of the carceral state. As the tactics, contingencies, and geography of this war changes, so have the uses of the local jail.

There are over three thousand counties and parishes in the United States, and almost every one of them has a jail. This fact has been easy to overlook when much of the media and institutional attention on carceral expansion has understandably focused on jails in the largest cities, and on federal and state prison siting. County jail incarceration is rising fastest outside of major cities, and rural and suburban counties have been sinking vast sums of public debt to construct new and bigger jails. One of the central challenges of movement-building around this expansion of carceral capacity is precisely its decentralized and local nature. The jail is everywhere, and people have been fighting back against incarceration and criminalization in communities across the country. Often these fights have been seen—and even experienced—as local or provincial, rather than as key struggles for abolitionist futures at the center points of a new geography of mass incarceration.

Whatever the combination of pressures and incentives, local jails have become a key site of carceral power and expansion.

Unlike state or federal prisons, jails are for the most part built, owned, and operated by county or city governments, and are used to incarcerate or detain people pretrial for relatively short periods of time. County jails, however, are not on the margins of the carceral state. Nearly every person imprisoned in the United States first spends time in a jail, and in recent decades the jail has become much more than a place to detain the local “rabble,” as John Irwin, in one of the foundational studies of the American jail, wrote in 1985. In the nearly four decades since the publication of Irwin’s The Jail—a book published in the midst of the largest prison expansion in U.S. history—the number of people incarcerated or detained in local jails on any given day in the United States has increased nearly threefold, in part due to the shifting role of the jail as a site of coherence for policing, state and federal prisons, and immigrant detention.

Jails today house people pretrial and for sentences under a year in most states, and under three to five years in others. Some states have taken advantage of bipartisan prison reform efforts of the last decade to lower prison populations. While this has reduced the overall number of people incarcerated in some places, such as California, in others, including Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana, it has simply shifted carceral power and capacity to the jail. Counties across the country face the pressures of more people convicted of felonies being sent to jail, and they build bigger jails in the face of this pressure, almost always at the urging of the county sheriff’s office and with the encouragement of jail architects and consultants, and sometimes even federal judges. At the same time, there are incentives for counties to expand local jail capacity to try and capture revenue from state and federal agencies. Whatever the combination of pressures and incentives, local jails have become a key site of carceral power and expansion, and continue to be central to racial capitalist development and planning efforts across the rural to urban spectrum.

There has also been a significant geographical shift in local incarceration. In mid-year 2019, there were an estimated 758,420 people in local jails, 31,000 more than in mid-year 2013. During that time, jail incarceration in the largest cities in the United States dropped 18 percent, while jail incarceration in rural counties increased 27 percent. These numbers represent real people—hundreds of thousands of people who are directly impacted by the violence of jail incarceration and detention, millions of people who are affected by the extraction that jail facilitates, and by the violence that is perpetrated on families and communities through policing and incarceration across the varied geography of the United States.

Drawing on progressive arguments about improving conditions of confinement and enhancing people’s rehabilitation, county and city officials position jails as sites of care. In doing so, they reinscribe notions of certain racialized, classed, and gendered people as in need of “fixing” while obfuscating the fundamental dehumanization and violence of the cage. At the same time, activists confront county and city officials who have taken up the same tired arguments of prison boosters—false promises that jails will solve their political economic problems. And in the face of austerity and a relentless political commitment to incarceration and detention, organizers are finding that their jail fights are not so local: the forces they are up against are produced by the devolution of state and federal imprisonment.

A prison yard surrounded by fencing. Groups of men congregate, play basketball.
Inmates at Orleans Parish Prison. | Bart Everson

In a 2006 article, the organizer Rose Braz keenly observed that plans for another round of prison expansion in California had abandoned the language of “tough on crime.” Instead, the administration of Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the governor, couched the proposal for almost a hundred new facilities of varying security levels in the idiom of “prison reform” and, more specifically, “gender responsiveness.” Just a few years later, other organizers began fighting jail expansion efforts in other communities around the country that bore a striking resemblance to what Braz first observed in California, namely the justification for massive carceral growth in the language of human rights, therapeutic justice, and reform. James Kilgore coined the phrase “carceral humanism” to describe what at that time in 2014 felt like an emerging logic of incarceration. Ten years later, carceral humanism is a central tendency of arguments for jail growth.

But carceral humanism is a just a new expression of an old argument. While incarceration has always been wielded as a class-war project it hasn’t only relied on punitive attitudes for credibility. There is also a historical legacy of prisons as reform projects, where proponents justified incarceration around principles of rehabilitation and treatment, often through paternalistic ideas of extending notions of American exceptionalism to racialized subjects and bringing or restoring them to idealized notions of wage labor productivity. The historian David Rothman has pointedly argued that reform efforts “may well have done less to upgrade dismal conditions than they did to create nightmares of their own.”

What, then, distinguishes today’s carceral humanism from these older approaches? First, contemporary attempts to collapse welfare and treatment into incarceration reflect a very different historical conjuncture. Half a century of harshly punitive and racist criminal justice policy, the mass imprisonment it has enabled, and the exponential growth in the number of prisons and jails in the United States have built out carceral capacities across every scale of the state. This has occurred in the same historical moment as deindustrialization, austerity, and heightened inequality. Second, in recent decades, an emergent-if-shallow multicultural and bipartisan criminal justice reform effort has materialized, the efforts of which have shrunk some state prison populations through incremental legislative fixes, while often shoring up the legitimacy of incarceration overall, at times through devolution (i.e., moving people from a prison to a jail) rather than decarceration (i.e., getting people out).

In the context of both neoliberal abandonment and state devolution, the jail is increasingly the catch-all “solution” to every social problem.

In the context of both neoliberal abandonment and state devolution, the jail is increasingly the catch-all “solution” to every social problem. For well-meaning city officials, concerned by mass incarceration but also by unaffordable housing, unemployment, addiction, and lack of treatment options, the jail has become a way to imagine doing incarceration differently, including as a mechanism to extend important services to marginalized populations. Understanding this moment as an expression of carceral humanism is thus both a periodizing and political maneuver, naming the ways that jails (and other elements of the carceral state) are recast as social—and indeed “social justice”—services in a long historical moment defined by organized violence as a solution to the problems produced by organized abandonment.

Carceral humanism manifests in different geographic and political contexts. In Sacramento, officials and attorneys interpreted a consent decree focused on the current jail’s violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as greenlighting a new jail construction project, arguing a new jail was the best way to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Similarly, in New Orleans, federal judges placed a consent decree on the jail because of poor conditions and threatened City Council members with contempt of court—including fines and possible jail time—if they did not move forward with new jail construction. A central lesson from those fights—that conditions of confinement and class action lawsuits and judicial approaches toward reducing overcrowding or addressing poor conditions can result in increases to carceral capacity—should caution anti-jail activists as they consider various tactics.

Many communities position new jails as mechanisms through which to increase access to a variety of mental and physical health services, poverty programs, and substance abuse treatment programs. In other places, critics of incarceration who occupy powerful positions in universities, foundations, city governments, and nonprofit organizations, propose and design new facilities presumed to meet the needs of women and gender-expansive people, one of many examples of an emergent liberal/progressive counterinsurgency against abolitionist demands. In still other places, new jails are proposed as expressions of city commitments to racial justice. Finally, in one conservative district, Republican lawmakers deployed a communications strategy reliant on the notions of humane and service-oriented jailing in order to win the consent of liberals to a jail-building proposal.

There are thousands of jails in the United States, through which more than 10 million people cycle each year. People affected by jail—all people—should have access to education and treatment; institutions should absolutely be accessible for people with all kinds of disabilities and should absolutely be able to respond to and provide care for women, trans, and nonbinary people in ways that affirm their gender identities and needs. Carceral humanism, however, is primarily an appeal for greater carceral capacity; no one is safer inside a jail cell.

Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. | Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, dozens of state governments have shuttered prisons from California to Florida, Colorado to New York. According to the Sentencing Project, states’ capacity to cage has dropped by 81,444 prison beds between 2000 and 2022. This unprecedented reduction in prison bed space during the era of mass incarceration has been due to a mix of organizing by decarceration activists, state fiscal contractions, and federal court mandates.

Yet frequently missing from this story is the extent to which states are turning to county and city jails to incarcerate state prisoners. At year end 2021 (the most recent data as of this writing), 64,648 state prisoners were held in local jails—6.2 percent of all state prisoners. While at first glance this number might not seem noteworthy, when further examined a pattern emerges. Thirteen states hold 80 percent of the national population of state prisoners in local jails—overwhelmingly in the South. Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia all incarcerate more than 10 percent of their state prison populations in jails, with Kentucky and Louisiana each incarcerating nearly half of their state prisoners in a county or parish jail. What is happening here?

A number of factors have converged to produce the devolution of state prison systems to local jails. While sheriff’s departments are frequently identified as the primary propellers of this carceral realignment, multiple factors have made this arrangement not only feasible but desirable. On one hand, federal courts’ mandating prison population limits in the face of overcrowding and conditions of confinement lawsuits have compelled states to find or make more bed space. At the same time, neoliberal restructuring has led to fiscal austerity for many state and local governments. While for state officials incarcerating someone in a jail serves as a solution insofar as it is cheaper than building new prisons, for certain county and municipal officials, jail expansion comes to be seen as a fix for endemic political economic crises. It is in this context that sheriffs mobilize and organize to expand their jails and the punitive power bloc. This interplay of state forces completely sidelines the possibility of decarceration or decriminalization as a legitimate political objective.

This dynamic first developed in a piecemeal fashion in Louisiana over the course of the 1970s to the 1990s. In the face of an extensive conditions-of-confinement lawsuit, federal courts placed population limits on the Louisiana State Penitentiary—Angola and sheriffs were forced to hold state prisoners in their jails. In response to sheriffs’ ire at shouldering this additional cost, the Louisiana state legislature innovated a new policy in 1976: a per diem system where the state department of corrections would allocate to sheriffs’ departments a certain amount of money per state prisoner held each night in a parish jail. This carceral arrangement was initially understood as a temporary stopgap while the state built new prisons. But sheriffs began to see this arrangement as beneficial insofar as per diem monies increased their economic and political resources, leading sheriffs to band together to organize against state prison building and for more state prisoners in their jails. By the 1990s it had become a permanent solution, with the incarceration of half of Louisiana’s prisoners in jails across the state.

It is essential that we map not only this new terrain of the carceral state but also the emergent abolitionist opposition.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, other states began implementing their own cooperation agreements between state corrections departments and county sheriffs’ departments. During the 1990s, state-sentenced prisoners in the South and parts of the Midwest increasingly found themselves doing time in a jail. This policy was further extended in 2011 when the Supreme Court ruled that the overcrowding of the California prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment and that California was prohibited from building new prisons to rectify overcrowding. In response, California policymakers instituted what they termed “realignment,” or relying on county jails to manage overcrowding pressures. What had once been a rarity in the carceral landscape was becoming commonplace.

This carceral devolution is a geographic form of state restructuring that concentrates resources in sheriffs’ offices. It is important to keep in mind that in many rural and suburban locales, the sheriff’s office is one of the most powerful elected political offices, responsible for overseeing the jail along with serving as the county’s police force and tax collectors. The funneling of per diem revenue payments further increases their power. Sheriffs are unable to pocket surplus revenue for their own personal enrichment, but they do have discretion on how these monies are spent, with little to no oversight. Generally speaking, they direct the bare minimum of per diem payments to any semblance of incarcerated people’s well-being. Instead, these monies are allotted to increasing jail staff, purchasing new punitive equipment, and, at times, jail renovations. New technologies and shiny renovations further the notion that sheriffs can make jails humane through modernization projects. Furthermore, the hiring of more sheriff’s deputies is routinely leveraged to build consent for the sheriff’s office. Deputies have been known to spend their time supporting public works projects from cleaning up parks to coordinating meals for the elderly. In doing so, sheriffs ingratiate themselves with residents who will go to the polls to keep a sheriff in office (or not). Which is to say, the carceral per diem revenue system shores up and expands sheriffs’ jailing fiefdoms while incentivizing sheriffs to lock up more and more state prisoners in their jails.

It is important to note that this devolution process would not be possible if it weren’t also attractive to state and local officials. While federal judges have prompted this realignment of state prison systems, governors and state legislators have passed laws and created mechanisms to facilitate this carceral configuration. For them this arrangement meets various economic and political needs. As neoliberalism has delegitimized raising taxes and promoted the adoption of tight debt ceilings in the name of the “anti-state state,” elected officials have diminished the revenues states have to work with. While departments of corrections have been one of the few areas prioritized, mass imprisonment is still a costly affair. The lack of political will to meaningfully move away from punitive politics in response to overcrowding means elected officials are unwilling to turn to early release or decriminalization as a solution. Locking up state prisoners in jails maintains the centrality of incarceration while saving state dollars. Not only are per diem payments on average much lower than the annual cost per day of incarcerating someone in a prison, it is even cheaper than taking out debt to finance new prison construction. And even when state legislatures create programs to aid sheriffs in expanding their jails for warehousing state prisoners, the debt does not impact the state’s bond rating as it is officially taken on by the county.

For local governments, the expansion of their county jails is frequently seen as an opportunity to manage their own political and economic problems. Neoliberal restructuring in the form of the slashing of federal revenue-sharing programs and state cuts to localities has translated to fiscal crises for counties across the country. Rural counties and smaller cities and suburbs have been hit particularly hard as these cuts have been joined by deindustrialization and shrinking tax bases. In the context of budget tightening and limited political vision, local leaders often back jail expansion as a needed job creation program for struggling communities. And for the jurisdictions where the sheriff is contracting with the department of corrections, per diem payments buoy the sheriff department’s budget—allowing less revenue to be allocated toward jail operations.

There is a long tradition of analysis and political activity that understands policing and incarceration as instruments of class war. Intellectuals writing in the Marxist tradition have centered cops and cages in their analyses of the ongoing primitive accumulation of capital—domestically and abroad—and to “structuring the accumulation of capital, controlling public space, [and] regulating labor relations.” Ruth Wilson Gilmore has written extensively on how incarceration, and the United States prison boom around the turn of the century, is “official racial class war,” part of the “abandonment of one set of public mandates in favor of another—of social welfare to domestic warfare.” Orisanmi Burton, in Tip of the Sphere: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt, argues that “prisons are war,” and are “state strategies of race war, class war, colonization, and counterinsurgency.” These analyses extend to the jail. As John Irwin noted, the jail “was devised as, and continues to be, the special social device for controlling . . . the lowest class of people.” While the uses and capacities of jails have been shifting and expanding around the country, and the jail is a part of a larger, expansive carceral state capacity, jails are still locally controlled and jail construction is still happening at the scale of the county, city, or region. Class war is all around us, and the jail is everywhere.

As the carceral state’s capacities have shifted and reorganized around jails, organizers have had to shift their focus as well. There have been campaigns against new or expanded jails in large cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta; in midsize cities like New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Oklahoma City; and in dozens of small towns and rural counties around the country. And while there is some coordination and communication between and among these fights, these struggles can also remain isolated from each other and from broader movements. As such, there is also a dearth of information and analysis identifying key points of distinction and leverage when it comes to fighting jail expansion, including issues of funding, revenue, and multi-jurisdictional incarceration. It is essential that we map not only this new terrain of the carceral state but also the emergent abolitionist opposition by foregrounding the hard-forged analyses of anti-jail organizers themselves as they take us through their seemingly local fights, which are actually at the center of the carceral state.


Excerpted from The Jail is Everywhere: Fighting the New Geography of Mass Incarceration. Edited by Jack Norton, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, and Judah Schept. Copyright © 2024. Available from Verso Books.