The noise in Prineville, Oregon’s tiny jail, built decades ago to house firefighting equipment, is constant. Voices bounce off the walls. Nothing dissipates the dank smell. There’s no natural light. Fluorescent bulbs give the green walls a sickly hue, the Associated Press reports. “I personally think this is an embarrassment to our community,” Sheriff John Gautney says of the 16-bunk Crook County Jail. The county has put a $10 million proposal on the November ballot to build a new jail. Inadequate and unsafe jails are problems across the nation, with aging facilities holding increasing numbers of inmates. They often operate with little to no oversight. With public reluctance to spend money to build jails, it seems unlikely the decrepit structures will see a face-lift anytime soon.
“These are local issues that require local solutions, but the problem is national in its scope,” said Laurie Garduque of the MacArthur Foundation. From 1970 to 2014, the average daily number of inmates held in the nation’s 3,000 county jails increased four-fold, from 157,000 to 690,000, says the Vera Institute of Justice. Lawsuits followed the last mass-casualty jail fire. It killed eight inmates in 2002 in Mitchell County, N.C. Thick smoke prevented rescuers from unlocking cells. The jail, built in 1955, had no sprinkler system. Garduque said one problem is that many detainees shouldn’t have been locked up at all, and instead should be offered programs for mental health and substance abuse issues.