‘If you build it, they will come’: How jail beds drive incarceration
Earlier this year, ICE asked Congress for 52,000 detention beds, indicating that it wanted to imprison a large town or small city’s worth of people. Congress limited ICE to an average daily population of 45,000. But now, ICE seems to have disregarded this limit and is detaining more than 52,000 immigrants in jails around the country, officials said this week, which is an apparent record high, writes Hamed Aleaziz for BuzzFeed News. ICE is “operating entirely outside of the constraints imposed on them by Congress,” said Heidi Altman, director of policy at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “The administration knows very well that this is needless cruelty and there are better alternatives that work and are cheaper and more humane.”
One ICE official told BuzzFeed that the detention numbers “have a direct correlation to border crossings,” but experts say that the numbers have spiked during the Trump administration because it expanded arrest priorities to include nearly every undocumented immigrant. Toward the end of the Obama administration, the population was approximately 35,000. “ICE doesn’t have to detain all the people it does,” Nikki Marquez, special projects attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, told the Daily Appeal. “They can and historically have released a lot of these people, like families seeking asylum at the border.”
ICE is able to ignore these limits in part because it is not physically confined to its own facilities: Thousands of migrants are detained in local jails across the country, sending significant federal funds to those jails and sheriff’s departments. Until the day when enough local jails refuse to help jail people for ICE, the agency effectively has an ever-expanding jail.
Space matters. Just as building new prisons was a major part of the rise of incarceration in the U.S.—as described by Professor Angela Y. Davis in her seminal work “Are Prisons Obsolete?”—so, too, have activists focused on closing facilities as a way to decarcerate.
This week, the Atlanta City Council passed a resolution to close the city’s jail and create a task force to make suggestions for how best to repurpose the space based on community input. The facility houses people detained on charges of violating city ordinances and minor traffic violations. The 1,300-bed facility was opened in 1995, at a cost of $56 million. Marilynn Winn, founder of the nonprofit Women On the Rise, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she sees the jail becoming a one-stop shop for employment, healthcare and child care assistance.
In New York City, activists have spent years urging the city for years to shutter its infamous detention complex, Rikers Island. Now, with those plans in the works, advocates want the mayor to hold off on building new jails as a replacement, and instead let the space limitations drive decarceration. As Raven Rakia and Ashoka Jegroo wrote for The Appeal last year, Critical Resistance New York City, a prison-abolitionist group, “has demanded that Rikers be shut down and not replaced with new jails and that the NYPD end policies like broken windows policing and community policing which, the group wrote, ‘only increase police presence in our neighborhoods and broaden their jurisdiction over virtually every aspect of our lives, especially in communities of color.’”
And last week, criminal-justice reform advocate Jonathan Ben-Menachem wrote in The Appeal, “We don’t have to open any new jails in order to close Rikers. … Closing jails can lead to reductions in pretrial detention and incarceration. Instead of replacing Rikers’ detention capacity with ‘humane jails,’ New Yorkers should seize this opportunity to pressure the NYPD to reduce its use of arrest.” Ben-Menachem points to Cincinnati, where, in 2008, an 822-bed facility was shuttered, eliminating more than one-third of the city’s available jail space. A 2017 study examined the results, asking what happens “when the police simply cannot lock up as many people as they used to? The result was a paradigm shift in how police view arrest: ‘as a limited commodity rather than as a standard response.’”
For decades, the prison abolitionist Ruth Gilmore has worked to reduce the number of prisons and jails by building coalitions of people who might be negatively affected by a facility. “It’s not that everybody who was organized on these campaigns was themselves an abolitionist,” Gilmore told Rachel Kushner, for the New York Times Magazine, “but instead that abolitionists engaged in a certain kind of organizing that made all different kinds of people, in all different kinds of situations, decide for themselves that it was not a good idea to have another prison.”
At an individual level, of course judges are not calling the local jail to find out how many beds are open before deciding whether to set bail, nor are police officers asking the sheriff these questions before deciding whether to arrest a teenager holding a joint. But collectively, it seems that more space in jails and prisons means more incarceration.
“I’ve seen in my research on rural and suburban jail incarceration that the expansion of carceral capacity at the county level at the very least removes the incentives for criminal justice system actors to find alternatives to incarceration,” Jack Norton, research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, told the Daily Appeal. “And so we see more and more people going to jail in the years after a jail expansion. As one sheriff in upstate New York told me about what he saw in the years following the construction of a new jail: ‘We talked to the National Institute of Corrections [before building a new jail]. They said if you build it, they will come. And that’s what happened. The judges knew there was room, so they threw them in jail.’”