Mass Incarceration Is a Rural Problem, Too

Mass incarceration is commonly thought of as a big-city problem. But as small-town economies have declined, county jails have expanded — and rural incarceration rates have jumped dramatically.

Jail cells in Caldwell County Jail in Lockhart, Texas. (Flickr)

Interview by
Jonah Walters

When the coal industry dried up in Kentucky, the state’s criminal justice policies helped subsidize impoverished counties by trucking money (and prisoners) to county jails. The result was a sharp rise in county jail populations — a 39 percent increase between 2008 and 2016. As researchers Jack Norton and Judah Schept have pointed out, if Kentucky’s jail incarceration rate were to continue to rise as it has since 2000, it would only take 113 years before every single Kentuckian was locked up.

Kentucky provides just one example of a much larger national trend. For decades, many people thought of mass incarceration as a disproportionately urban problem, with major cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles contributing the lion’s share of new arrests and prison commitments. But in reality, it’s thousands of smaller cities and towns that suffer the highest incarceration rates today.

Across the United States’ rural and deindustrialized landscape, economic decline has gone hand in hand with jail expansion and increased incarceration. And as county jails increasingly turn to the federal government for revenue — including by detaining immigrants on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — the problem is only becoming more pronounced.

The In Our Backyards project, a research initiative from the Vera Institute of Justice, was launched to capture this shifting geography of mass incarceration in real time. This project has taken researchers all over the country, from Pennsylvania’s disinvested steel region to the desert towns of southern Colorado, to monitor the nationwide buildup in carceral infrastructure and connect with local anti-jail organizers. Jacobin’s Jonah Walters spoke with researcher Jack Norton and campaign director Jasmine Heiss about the social costs of county jail expansion and the problem of jail incarceration in small communities.

Jonah Walters

In your recent Guardian op-ed, you drew attention to a facet of rural America that is generally left out of mainstream media accounts: the massive buildup of carceral infrastructure in rural counties over the past several decades.

Why is mass incarceration key to understanding life in rural America?

Jack Norton

The immediate reason for the op-ed was the release of the People in Jail report by a team of our colleagues at the Vera Institute of Justice, with other researchers. The study shows that jail incarceration in rural counties has risen 27 percent since 2013, while urban incarceration — what we call “big city” incarceration — actually declined 18 percent during that period.

Across the country, county after county is building newer and bigger jails. In many cases, those jails are fulfilling functions that used to be fulfilled by state or federal prisons. In a state like Kentucky, for example, the state is sending people serving state prison sentences to county facilities, driving jail expansion. As a result, people are starting to serve out longer sentences in jails.

County jails are also increasingly being used for ICE detention. That’s something we’re seeing all over the county — county jails incarcerating immigrants on behalf of federal agencies.

Jasmine Heiss

There are nearly eighteen times more admissions to jails each year than to prisons. In the United States, someone is booked into jail 11 million times each year — that’s an astronomical number. The People in Jail report reveals that jail incarceration has actually been rising steeply since its most recent low in 2015. That naturally begs the question: Why are people in small places getting put behind bars more and more?

To really understand rural incarceration, you have to situate this rebounding jail population in the context of everything that’s happening outside of the jail doors. We’re coming to see incarceration as something that happens in the wake of economic collapse, whether it’s through the loss of local industries or the decline of state funding to localities.

There is an inextricable link between rising incarceration, on the one hand, and economic abandonment and decline in small communities, on the other.

Jonah Walters

How has the overdose crisis contributed to rising incarceration in rural counties?

Jack Norton

We need to frame the question differently. Incarceration has fueled the overdose crisis. Recent research has shown that the two major predictors of rising overdose rates in a county are economic decline and jail incarceration. In a typical county, the jail incarceration rate has a bigger effect on rates of overdose than even the opioid prescription rate. We need to start looking at jailing not as a response to poverty, drug addiction, and widespread despair, but as a cause of those problems.

This has come up in our fieldwork. In Binghamton, New York, for example, which is in a county with one of the highest incarceration rates in the state, people have been organizing against the expansion of the jail’s purview, and organizers there understand quite well that incarceration kills people.

For one thing, there are people dying in the jail. But there’s also the fact that using jail as a response to drug problems not only exacerbates those problems on a social level, but actually causes overdoses for individuals. People with substance use disorders go into the jail, they receive little to no treatment to help them recover from addiction, they lose some of the tolerance they had built up as regular drug users, and then when they return to the streets they overuse and overdose, resulting in death. This is a well-documented phenomenon across the country. Jail incarceration is actively contributing to the overdose crisis, rather than simply responding to it.

Jasmine Heiss

The notion that we’re bringing a more compassionate and public health–oriented approach to the overdose crisis doesn’t hold up. Our response has really been punishment and control, sometimes packaged in public health language.

When you look closely at who is in jail, you see increasing punitiveness for crimes related to substance use, especially around low-level dealers. For example, in several Pennsylvania counties (and in other states as well), cases of drug delivery resulting in death are routinely prosecuted as homicides. People who share drugs are being held accountable for people around them dying. In Indiana, the most prevalent felony filings are possession of meth and syringe possession. And even the ostensibly progressive solutions of drug courts and other so-called problem-solving courts betray an enduring fixation on punishment and control. These kinds of solutions are driven by the same logic that allows people to applaud the massive expansion of electronic monitoring as a supposedly de-carceral measure that creates a “gentler” system.

Jonah Walters

How are county jails different from state or federal prisons, and what does mass incarceration actually look like at the county level?

Jack Norton

Jails are a key part of the infrastructure of social control and criminalization in the United States. They’re a major piece of that infrastructure at the county level. Above the county jail system, you have the state prison system, and then you also have the federal prison system and various immigration detention centers around the country.

There’s still a lot to learn about what’s going on at the county level. How do you capture a system of mass incarceration that is actually more than three thousand local systems all across the country?

We’ve done fieldwork for this project in California, rural Colorado, Florida, Georgia, rural Indiana, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and other states as well. If you travel the country and stay on the lookout for new or expanded jails, you see county after county increasing its capacity to lock people up. We’re witnessing a massive increase of carceral infrastructure across the landscape of the rural United States. It’s staggering.

Jasmine Heiss

The key distinction between jail populations and prison populations is that the vast majority of people in jail on any given day are unconvicted — they are awaiting sentencing or disposition of a charge or charges that haven’t been proven. Jail incarceration is increasingly being used to “manage” people, especially those who have been accused of violating the terms of their supervision (probation or parole).

Several states house significant portions of their state prison populations in county jails. In some states, you increasingly have people serving multi-year sentences at the county jail level. Oftentimes, this comes with the promise of revenue from the state system, which counties use to offset the cost of detaining people.

Jonah Walters

The expansion of jail capacity you describe is taking place even as many state governments boast about reductions in prison populations at the state level. How is it that, in many states, bipartisan prison reforms coexist with jail expansion?

Jack Norton

I think we have to look at the system of mass criminalization as holistically as possible. We also need to understand that changes to this system unfold through a process of co-optation, repression, and struggle. If you examine reforms closely, you often end up feeling like you’re watching a shell game, in which the crisis moves continually to a different scale or to a different level of government. We’re seeing that now in the expansion of county jails.

In Indiana, for example, former governor Mike Pence signed House Bill 1006 in 2015, which was designed to reduce the number of people in state prison by housing people convicted of low-level felonies in county jails or putting them on local supervision like probation or electronic monitoring. What the policy actually did was move certain people from Indiana’s state prison system into county jails, while also hardening sentences for certain state prisoners. The state prison population dropped a little bit, then went right back up (very predictably). But the legislation’s major effect was to cause a crisis at the county level, by creating an influx of new people into jails in Indiana. As a result, county after county after county in Indiana started to build bigger jails.

This was an example of bipartisan prison reform. But what was the end result? An even more vast infrastructure of incarceration across Indiana. Forty percent of Indiana counties planned or broke ground on new jail construction projects, according to an Indiana Sheriffs’ Association estimate. Infrastructure doesn’t just go away after a new election. Generations of people are going to pay for and live with and be incarcerated in those jails.

Jonah Walters

You mentioned ICE detention. How does the federal government, and especially federal immigrant detention, contribute to county jail expansion?

Jack Norton

Local counties receive revenue — called a “per diem” — for every day that their jail holds somebody for the federal government. If you’re a sheriff or a county commissioner, holding prisoners for a federal agency gets you a revenue stream. This applies to the US marshals, who hold people in local county jails after arrest and during transport, and it also applies to ICE.

This situation has given many counties an incentive to build bigger jails, since they can offset the cost of that investment by housing more and more federal or state prisoners. The end result of this devolution has been the quiet jail boom we’re seeing across the country. The United States Department of Agriculture even provides financial assistance for jail expansion in some counties.

Federal per diems provide a partial explanation for widespread jail expansion, but they’re not the whole story. In states where corrections departments hold people at the county level, like Louisiana and Kentucky, that revenue comes from the state government, not the federal one.

Jasmine Heiss

Building up that infrastructure creates and reinforces political alignments, and it contributes to a carceral common sense about what’s in the “best interest” of the county.

If you create an ever-deepening reliance on the detention of immigrants and other people facing federal charges to offset the costs of pre-trial detention, then you will lock more people up before trial as long as there are beds and dollars available. It will be in the “best interest” of your county to sustain a local system of punishment that relies on incarcerating some people to generate revenue, which offsets the cost of even more incarceration.

This creates a situation in which people who should absolutely never be thinking about immigration enforcement — county sheriffs, county commissioners — suddenly see immigrant detention as a tool for economic survival, or at least as a valuable source of revenue that balances out other policy decisions being made locally.

Jonah Walters

You mentioned the connection between economic decline — whether through deindustrialization or reductions in state assistance — and rising incarceration. How does jail expansion affect economic development in small places?

Jack Norton

If a small rural county decides to build a new jail, that’s likely going to be the most significant investment in infrastructure the county makes for a long time, because there’s only so much debt you can go into. If you put 30 million dollars into a new jail, that precludes other investment in social infrastructure to deal with the actual problems that jails not only don’t solve, but make worse — things like poverty, mental illness, and drug use.

After an initial investment in the jail, the jail becomes the key piece of infrastructure through which other investments are made. If the county identifies a need for mental health services, for example, that becomes a call to put a mental health wing in the jail. If the county sees the need for drug treatment or counseling in the community, it establishes a drug rehabilitation program in the jail. Investments in county-level carceral infrastructure are political investments. They affect what policymakers imagine to be possible.

I see it when I do this fieldwork. It’s like I’m not just traveling around to study jails, but that I’m doing a tour of post-2008 recession America. After all these cuts, oftentimes the only part of the local state that has any resources left is the sheriff’s department.

Jonah Walters

It’s a kind of carceral austerity.

Jasmine Heiss

It’s a carceral austerity that’s self-created, in many cases.

Budgets and policies are not just technocratic. They’re moral documents. They reveal so much about how state and county governments see the humanity of the people who live there.

Because of the legacy of siting state and federal prisons in rural communities as a part of an empty promise of “economic salvation” organized by state and federal authorities and local elites, I think there’s often an immediate assumption that jails are also built as a jobs program, to enlist the working poor in the project of mass incarceration. Even leaving aside the dubious economic impact of prison construction and the dehumanization inherent to working in a prison, jails require a fundamentally different frame.

Although smaller jails increasingly house people for state and federal governments, the overwhelming majority of people in a local jail on a given day are generally from the very same community in which the jail is located. You have a small number of people charged with managing and punishing people whom they’ve often known their entire life. A colleague once described an overcrowded North East Pennsylvania jail as a place where the guards were being paid to “torture their own family members.”

At the local scale, the cost of generations of investment into carceral infrastructure becomes even clearer. People who work at the jail are also driving to work on the county’s crumbling roads, they’re sending their kids to underfunded schools, or they’re watching their own family members land in jail for poverty or substance use. And they’re being told, over and over again, that a newer, bigger jail is the most legitimate investment of public dollars — that it’s the only thing that will produce safety. And in some cases, even as the local commissioners and sheriff pursue ever-expanding jails, they can’t adequately staff the facilities they’re currently running.

Jonah Walters

When we shift our focus away from state corrections departments and toward a decentralized network of jail systems administered by county sheriffs, the task of organizing against mass incarceration starts to seem even more daunting.

What kinds of challenges does the trend toward jail incarceration present for reformers?

Jasmine Heiss

One thing that comes to mind is the incredible proximity of the people who work in the system and the people who live in the county. I’ve seen editorials written about anti-jail organizers in local papers, calling them obstructionists or accusing them of not caring about the well-being of the county or the people in the jail. There’s a level of social risk and social vulnerability that comes with being a voice that challenges the status quo in a small place.

Of course, that also means that you have the social proximity to build much closer relationships and find points of leverage. Most of the people who actually execute the justice system — not necessarily probation or parole officers, but certainly sheriffs, judges, district attorneys, and county commissioners — are elected. In terms of organizing, that provides a real opportunity for holding people accountable and articulating local visions of safety that do not rely on intensified incarceration.

The fundamental objective, however, needs to be shifting resources outside of the justice system. We don’t want to be in the position of constantly demanding that the already bloated criminal justice bureaucracy establish new and better programs for reducing harm. In reality, we should be pushing elected officials to put resources elsewhere so that people never end up entangled with the criminal justice system.

Jack Norton

I think one of the things that’s so important about this project is pointing out to people that if you see mass incarceration as a local issue — “In Our Backyards,” as our framing goes — you see it also as something that it is possible to organize around locally. To a large extent, mass incarceration is the result of decisions made by local politicians who you elect.

Jasmine Heiss

The most remarkable part of this story is that, even in places that are perpetually described as sad and self-defeating, people are organizing to resist jail expansion and punitive carceral policies.

Even in small places, where there are such high social costs for organizers, where local justice practitioners and “system stakeholders” have a tremendous amount of power, people are pushing back. They are fighting jail construction tirelessly, year after year.

Jonah Walters

Given the shifting geography of mass incarceration, what do we need to keep in mind moving forward?

Jasmine Heiss

To start, I want to acknowledge that in some places we have seen some incredible wins, often sustained by movement work and organizing. For example, the city jail in Atlanta recently closed as a result of successful organizing around a number of issues — such as decriminalizing municipal-level offenses, eliminating the city’s ICE contracts, and bail and pre-trial detention reform. Now, advocates and activists are actually working to transform that jail site into a facility that serves the community. That’s a momentous win, and it’s not the only one. I wouldn’t want to erase the progress that has been made. But criminal justice reform has been extremely uneven — things look different county by county and state by state.

We need to look at what’s happening elsewhere. We pay so much attention to big cities like Atlanta that we too often end up characterizing much of the rest of the country as a vast land of defeat. But in deindustrialized small cities and rural counties, people are still fighting really tenaciously against jail expansion and often being personally attacked for doing so.

Jack Norton

I’m from a rural area of upstate New York. Since the 2016 election, we’ve seen all kinds of articles about “what’s wrong with rural America,” and they almost invariably paint rural places as vivid Boschian hellscapes. Almost all of these portraits ignore the fact that incarceration rates are rising. More and more people are getting locked up and criminalized in rural areas. That can’t be left out of the story anymore.

What I want people to realize is that incarceration is actually a technology of the immiseration and premature death that we see in all those bleak portraits of rural America. I want people to understand that mass incarceration is a rural issue. It’s an element of deindustrialization, just as it’s an element of the semifeudal racist status quo in some counties in the South.

County jails exist to produce and reproduce social relations of a certain kind. As the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore demonstrates, mass incarceration is part of the making and remaking of rural and urban political and economic landscapes through new combinations and relationships. To understand this at the local scale demands that we apply class analysis to rural counties. When we’re talking about jail construction, we’re really talking about certain class fractions winning control over state resources and using them toward carceral ends, in a very organized way.

If we want to contribute to this fight, a first step is refusing to see rural places as homogenous. Rural America isn’t all white, and rural America has class variation. We need to understand that there is class struggle happening there.