The Migration of U.S. Prisoners to Local Jails is Misguided

EKU Online > News & Updates > Corrections > The Migration of U.S. Prisoners to Local Jails is Misguided

By: Haley Bates, EKU Corrections and Juvenile Justice Student

For several decades, punitive war on drugs policies have driven rates of mass incarceration. This exponential increase in our prison population has strained the system’s resources and led to overcrowding.  Since 2011, many states have adopted policies to decrease incarceration including reduced sentences for low-level drug crimes and expansion of good time credit.  A lesser known response to prison crowding is the practice of contracting with local jail facilities to house state prisoners.   

The arrangement between state-run departments of corrections and county-based jails varies from state to state.  Most states reimburse local jails for housing people after being sentenced to prison while awaiting transport to the state facility.  Some states actually “wait-list” prisoners in county jails until bedspace opens up in the state facility.  Other states have authorized, in statute, the housing of low-level State prisoners in local jails to help reduce the strain on the prison system.  In many states, there is no maximum time limit set for how long state prisoners can remain in county jails. Because the per diem associated with housing a prisoner in local jails is often less than the per-diem cost of state prisons, there is little incentive for states to retrieve their prisoners.  These arrangements have significantly increased jail populations across the nation.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics (2019) reports that the largest increases (27%) are in rural, small counties who grapple with limited budgets and become dependent on the revenue they earn from housing these prisoners.

This relationship between county jails and state prison systems often comes at the detriment of the prisoner. Despite the money they earn from housing prisoners, local jails do not have the financial resources to adequately care for their inmates. Jails, intended to house a more transient population, are often ill-equipped to provide long-term mental health or substance abuse treatment. Research and self-reports have shown that the majority of individuals entering jails have a substance abuse problem and/or suffer from a major disorder such as PTSD, depression, or bipolar disorder. Conditions of isolation within jail (e.g., limited visitation and phone calls) paired with lack of treatment/programming can worsen mental and physical health outcomes.  Jails also lack programs or services that focus on education or employment, services that are essential for a population that suffers from unemployment and poverty. Unable to meet the chronic substance use, mental health, and employment needs of this population, they are then released back into the community with few tools to help them desist from crime. They are almost destined to return to the system in a vicious, never-ending cycle of incarceration and release.

The answer to crowded prisons does not lie in transferring the problem to equally crowded local jails.  The first course of action should be the release of non-violent offenders.  Short of that, state authorities wanting to give prisoner responsibility to local jails must provide sufficient funding for inmate rehabilitation.

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