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Corrections in crisis

America’s prisons and jails are old, overtaxed and dilapidated, and it’s putting us all at risk

June 23, 2015 2:00AM ET

Police and federal agents were, at the time of publication, still hunting for two convicted murderers who escaped June 7 from the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in rural upstate New York.

On June 14, a county prosecutor said that while the pair received some inside help from a female prison worker, they stole the power tools they needed to cut through their steel cell walls from contractors who were doing repairs at the deteriorating 170-year old institution.

The incident provides a rare opportunity to explore an underreported, yet consequential aspect of America’s broken correctional system. Despite an unprecedented surge in prison construction over the part several decades, the United States continues to house tens of thousands of men and women in jails and prisons that are falling apart. This not only puts the people who live and work at these facilities at risk, but threatens the communities surrounding them as well.

The Government Accountability Office has warned that deteriorating prison facilities lead to “increased risk of escape, inability to lock down cells and violence over inadequate living conditions,” while other research points to a higher degree of recidivism among inmates housed under poor conditions. 

The problem is widespread. Earlier this month the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal court to force improvements on Baltimore’s 159 year-old City Jail. The motion describes the jail as “a dank and dangerous place,” with broken toilets, inadequate ventilation, extensive mold and a propensity for flooding. On June 11, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs issued the findings of a study it conducted of D.C.’s Central Detention Facility, calling the conditions there “appalling” and citing structural and mechanical problems that are “serious to extremely serious.” 

Stress fractures

Clinton Correctional Facility, where the notorious jailbreak occurred, is not the oldest prison in New York. That distinction belongs to Auburn Prison, near Syracuse – which received its first inmate in 1817 and by 2011 had deteriorated into a warren of filth, with “exposed pipes, large holes in the concrete ... cockroaches and extensive leaks,” according to an assessment by the Correctional Association of New York.

David C. Fathi – Director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project – says those are increasingly common characteristics throughout the nation’s correctional facilities. 

“Much has been said about America’s crumbling infrastructure, but nowhere is that problem as acute as in our prisons and jails,” he told me via email. Fathi said that in many cases deteriorating prison conditions raise constitutional issues relating to the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. This occasionally leads to court intervention, but a 1996 law known as the Prison Litigation Reform Act places considerable burdens on plaintiffs seeking relief. 

The disrepair and structural defects provide inmates with a source of weapons stock and provides spaces for inmates to hide inmate-manufactured weapons.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Inspector General

Newer institutions are also buckling under the weight of an inmate population that has tripled more than twice since 1970. According to Department of Justice data, most states now report operational capacities exceeding the number of inmates their prisons were designed to hold; at least ten high-incarceration states and the federal government have inmate populations more than 30 percent above design capacity.

As a result, many correctional institutions now struggle to meet minimal health and safety standards, with plumbing and ventilation systems the most susceptible to breakdowns. What little money is earmarked for maintenance is often diverted to fill operational shortfalls due largely to overcrowding.

The Department of Justice warns that delaying prison maintenance “can cause direct and/or indirect security problems,” and indeed many of the institutions in the greatest need of repair are also the most dangerous. The California Institution for Men (CIM) at Chino — which opened its doors in 1941 — is a case in point. A 2005 Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Inspector General report described parts of the facility as being in a “serious state of disrepair” and said failing infrastructure had contributed to a spate of violent attacks, including the stabbing death of a corrections officer.  

“The disrepair and structural defects provide inmates with a source of weapons stock and provides spaces for inmates to hide inmate-manufactured weapons,” the report notes.

A follow-up survey in 2008 found no improvement, and less than a year after that report was issued, CIM exploded in one of the worst prison riots in California history. A CDCR population summary from the week of the riot showed the prison was operating at 197-percent capacity.

The problem of crumbling infrastructure is not limited to municipal jails and state prisons. The Government Accountability Office reported last year that the Federal Bureau of Prisons faces a backlog of more than 220 major repair and replacement projects (up from 154 in 2013) that will cost approximately $430 million to complete.

Yet nowhere is the infrastructure problem more evident than in the nation’s roughly 3,100 municipal jails, which average more than 50 years in age, according to the American Jail Association. Over the past two years potentially dangerous infrastructure issues have been exposed at jails in at least six states, with repair shortfalls running into the hundreds of millions.  

New bricks

Some critics have recently cited poor infrastructure as a reason to build new jails to replace old ones such as Philadelphia’s 140-year-old House of Corrections. But with the right policy reforms America could both close old, deteriorating facilities and alleviate pressure on the ones that remain without having to lay a single new brick.

The bail system is the best place to start. While it varies based on municipality, between 60 and 90 percent of jail inmates are incarcerated because they can’t make bail for non-violent offenses for which many of them will ultimately be acquitted. New York is currently testing several alternatives to monetary bail, including a supervised release program and two nonprofit “bail funds” that provide small-dollar amount bonds for indigent defendants who would otherwise remain incarcerated.

In February, following a DOJ official’s finding that Maine’s 15 jails are in a “terminal” state of disrepair, the state’s chief justice announced the creation of a Task Force on Pretrial Justice Reform to explore ways of alleviating bail requirements on non-violent offenders. Last month the MacArthur Foundation awarded grants to 20 municipalities to begin exploring alternatives to jail. One grantee has said that it will explore bail reform as one means of doing that.

Bail will only get reforms so far. In the U.S., nearly 70 percent of convicted criminal offenders are sent to prison. In Germany and the Netherlands it’s less than one in 10; and even when criminals are sentenced to prison, they don’t always go. For instance, German courts typically suspend all custodial sentences of fewer than two years, amounting to a de facto term of probation. Not only do we incarcerate at a higher rate, we keep people in prison for longer. The average inmate in Florida, for instance, will spend 4.7 years behind bars, nearly four times the average sentence in the United Kingdom.

Finally, improving reentry support for ex-offenders returning to the community, and beginning that process well before they leave prison, is critical to slowing the revolving door of recidivism.

The U.S. already has more prisons per capita than any other developed nation, and yet it still struggles to safely house its inmates. To fix our bloated correction system it’s time we considered turning off the faucet instead of just building a bigger bucket. 

Christopher Moraff is a freelance writer who covers policing, criminal justice policy and civil liberties for Al Jazeera America and other media outlets. He was recognized in 2014 with an H.F. Guggenheim reporting fellowship at John Jay College

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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