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Major County Jails Are Decarcerating, But Violence, Deaths Persist

Jails in New Orleans and Cleveland have had significant population drops, yet conditions of confinement remain poor. Communities harmed by these jails should experiment with new accountability measures to maintain political pressure against jail administrators.

Photo illustration Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty images.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis on important issues and actors in the criminal legal system

With at least 15 deaths since late December in the troubled, overcrowded Mississippi prison system, two major county jails achieving historical declines in their populations of incarcerated people seems like rare good news. In late 2019, the Orleans Parish (New Orleans) jail in Louisiana reported an average daily population of 1,159.1, an enormous reduction from the approximately 6,300 people incarcerated there in 2005. In November, the population at the jail in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland)—Ohio’s second-largest county with more than 1.2 million residents—dropped below its maximum capacity of 1,765 for the first time in 20 years.

Given that overcrowding in jails and prisons is empirically connected to negative health outcomes for incarcerated people and higher rates of violence, it’s reasonable to hope that such significant decarceration efforts would improve conditions for people in jails.

But abysmal conditions of confinement persist at both jails. At least nine people have died at the Cuyahoga jail since June 2018. Other Ohio jails seem just as deadly: There were at least 21 deaths and 16 suicides statewide last year between May and December. Since 2009, there have been nearly 40 deaths at the Orleans jail. And research published late last month suggests that nationwide, county jail incarceration rates drive premature mortality.

The Cuyahoga and Orleans jails demonstrate that although decarceration is an unalloyed good—it prevents people from ever experiencing incarceration in the first place and mitigates the destabilizing effects of mass incarceration for marginalized communities—it is insufficient to end the abuse of people held in county jails. Ironically, decarceration may now be exposing the fundamental cruelty of incarceration itself.

In 2018, when the Cuyahoga County jail population was 2,420, a U.S. Marshals report claimed that staff denied incarcerated people basic hygiene, food, and water, and failed to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The report also noted that children were housed with adults, and that jail staff shut off water so that people could not use toilets and sinks.

Despite achieving a 20-year low in its incarcerated population by the end of last year, violence and other problems at the Cuyahoga jail are seemingly at an all-time high. There were 69 reported suicide attempts in 2018, and the jail is the subject of a near-constant stream of lawsuits over the abuse of incarcerated people, including a November complaint alleging that guards pepper-sprayed and assaulted a man for merely asking about his release date.

In August, former associate warden Eric Ivey pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and falsification after allegedly ordering staff to shut off body cameras during the investigation of the death of Joseph Arquillo. Several other corrections officers at the jail have also been charged with felonious assault and evidence tampering. This pattern of abuse and misconduct by jail staff has sparked a series of civil rights lawsuits. In late January, prosecutors from the Ohio attorney general’s office announced that they obtained thousands of pages of documents during a search of Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish’s office. Though Budish has not been charged with any crimes, he is the subject of a criminal investigation into corruption and civil rights violations related to the county jail.

The population at the Orleans Parish jail has declined from approximately 3,400 in 2010 to around 1,150 toward the end of 2019, but the abuse of detainees continues. After Tom Perez, then assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in 2012 that conditions at the Orleans jail were “dangerous and unacceptable for far too long,” the facility entered into a federal consent decree in 2013. But even after five years of federal oversight, the consent decree monitor reported that violence and use of force in the facility remained at “unacceptable levels.” Between just July and December 2018 there were 20 incidents involving incarcerated people who overdosed or who were found unresponsive.

A Jan. 19 federal monitor report found that although there were no deaths in 2019, use of force in the jail increased by 38 percent between 2018 and 2019 while altercations between staff and incarcerated people nearly doubled. The monitor also reported corrections officers’ “over-reliance on use of force to gain control and compliance”  of incarcerated people, and that staff did not comply with improved use of force policies. In October, two Orleans Parish sheriff’s deputies were fired for engaging in sexual relationships with people participating in the office’s work-release program.

Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who oversees the jail, has consistently advocated for jail expansion in response to community complaints and litigation over poor conditions of confinement. In mid-January, thanks to sustained pushback from community members and decarceration advocates, the New Orleans City Council approved a resolution that caps its jail population at 1,250, cementing the recent population declines.

It’s possible, then, that the many benefits of decarceration don’t include improved conditions of confinement for incarcerated people. We must go beyond decarceration.

Because prisons and jails are hidden from public view—and thanks to the disenfranchisement of currently and formerly incarcerated people—victims of carceral harms are often prevented from articulating demands for improved conditions. And even when America’s worst jails and prisons are forced into federal oversight agreements, corrections agencies continue to abuse incarcerated people. A federal judge recently accused the Virginia Department of Corrections of intentionally delaying compliance with a four-year-old federal settlement intended to improve medical care for women incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center.

This trend persists across jurisdictions: In New York City, where a federal monitor began oversight in 2015, Rikers Island visitors have reported being strip-searched and sexually assaulted, and the city has faced multiple lawsuits filed by women who were sexually assaulted while incarcerated in city jails. The existing model for federal oversight also relies on the White House’s willingness to take action against local carceral misconduct, which has all but disappeared during the Trump administration.

Community oversight can change that dynamic. So, in addition to—or instead of—federal oversight, communities plagued by deadly conditions at county jails should demand community oversight.

In 2016, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition joined nine community groups to propose a community oversight board for the Orleans jail. In Cuyahoga County, the Coalition to Stop the Inhumanity at the Cuyahoga County Jail has called for independent community-led oversight (among other crucial reforms) in order to bring the jail into compliance with state minimum standards. Coalition member LaTonya Goldsby wrote in an email to The Appeal that “community oversight will ensure that those who are most impacted by the criminal justice system will be able to have a voice at the table on how our criminal justice system should work.”

Community oversight of local jails would chip away at the wall of secrecy that protects corrections staff from accountability. And because these oversight frameworks would be accountable to local communities, they would complement local organizers’ efforts to protest abuse and advocate for community reinvestment.

Bail reform and electing decarceral prosecutors can also reduce the harms caused by county jails. “We also feel as though Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Mike O’Malley shares blame as well because of his office insistences on using cash bail,” Goldsby wrote. Similarly, in New Orleans, nearly one third of people detained on alleged felonies were incarcerated until the end of their case because they couldn’t afford bail, according to a 2017 study from the Vera Institute of Justice. Like the Cuyahoga jail, deaths of pretrial detainees at the Orleans jail are commonplace. In May 2018, 36-year-old Kentrell Hurst died as she was held on $1,500 bond stemming from an arrest for allegedly stealing $56.63 worth of items from a grocery store.

Ultimately, a jail is a jail, and pouring public funds into our costly and counterproductive carceral system may not be the best solution to the constant stream of deaths and suffering. The surest way to end the abuse of incarcerated people is to abolish incarceration altogether and redirect resources toward supportive structures like healthcare, housing, and employment. In New Orleans, nearly 25 percent of the city’s budget is dedicated to policing, and 1 in 7 adults in the city has a warrant out for their arrest, typically for minor violations like failure to appear in court. This month, the city approved a temporary jail for incarcerated people with mental illnesses alongside the cap on jail population. Imagine if New Orleans instead dedicated resources to mental health treatment and non-police first responders.

Until this abolitionist future can be realized, robust community-centered oversight frameworks paired with dedicated political resistance to prisons and jails may help prevent some of the most egregious harms committed against incarcerated people.

Jonathan Ben-Menachem writes about politics and culture, focusing on policing, austerity, and the criminalization of poverty.