In a former parking lot next to the Greene County Jail in Springfield, Mo., six 52-foot semi-trailers sit surrounded by chain-link fence topped with swirls of razor wire.
Within the stainless steel walls, 108 men eat, sleep and live for days, weeks or months at a time. They are confined in a space that, per man, is less than half the size of a ping-pong table.
Most are awaiting trial. Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott estimates that about 98 percent of people being held in jail have been charged with a crime and are waiting for an official declaration of guilt — or innocence.
The trailer jail began housing inmates about a year ago. County officials called it the first of its kind in the country, and a cost-effective temporary solution to a jail overcrowding problem that has plagued Greene County for more than a decade.
According to officials, the trailer jail could temporarily relieve some of the mounting pressures while Greene County works toward a more permanent fix of expanding the jail’s capacity — by renovating the existing building and constructing an addition across the street — with money from a new sales tax. The opening of the jail expansion is still years away.
Springfield was apparently the first city to become home to a trailer jail, but it’s not the last. The creator of the project, Seymour-based company All Detainment Solutions, is now capitalizing on a nationwide jail-overcrowding crisis.
The company appears to have been busy in the past 12 months. It has secured a multi-million dollar contract to build a trailer jail in Canyon County, Idaho. Dozens of officials from other inmate-inundated counties across the country have been traveling to Springfield to see the first trailer jail for themselves, with the question: “Could this work for us?”
At the same time, legal experts say the design of the trailer jail raises major red flags. One called it a “recipe for disaster.” Others cautioned that keeping people in those crowded conditions could be considered “inhumane” and amount to constitutional violations.
“I suggest to the sheriff that they find another way before they’re sued, because they’re going to be sued,” said Sharon Dolovich, director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Prison Law & Policy Program.
Some drew comparisons to Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s infamous “Tent City Jail,” which closed last year after housing inmates for more than two decades — a comparison that Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott strongly disputed.
Arnott said housing inmates in what he sometimes jokingly refers to as the “trailer park jail” isn’t an ideal setup. He’d prefer to have more space in a permanent facility and more officers to supervise the inmates. However, he adamantly denies allegations that the conditions inside the temporary facility are less than adequate.
He scoffs at the assertion that conditions in the jail are “inhumane.”
“Inhumane is a ridiculous word to use,” he said. “I wouldn’t put my staff in an inhumane area to work.”
“This jail is very clean and well-maintained, and as far as space issues go, it is what it is,” Arnott said. “… Most sheriffs who come to tour it think it’s better than their existing jail … People come from all over and say, ‘This is a fantastic idea.'”
Beyond a few minor structural tweaks that had to be made in the early months of the temporary jail’s operation, Arnott said the facility has worked well.
“Do we want to keep it forever? No. But it’s a great solution for now,” he said.
All Detainment Solutions declined to answer the News-Leader’s questions about the growth of their business and their temporary jail design.
Though the trailer jail in Greene County is meant to be temporary, no one has a clear idea on how long it will be used.
County officials have hinted at the possibility of keeping the temporary jail open even after the expansion of the permanent facility is completed.
Between 2010 and 2017, the average number of Greene County inmates grew about 66 percent, according to numbers provided by a consultant hired by the county to study the jail last year.
Arnott estimates his office could be responsible for overseeing more than 1,000 inmates on a daily basis by the time the expansion is finished, expected to be a few years from now.
One major factor contributing to the population growth is an increase in the average length of stay, the study said. On average, an inmate is held in the jail for 24 days. Five years ago, it was only 16 days. Three years is the longest any current occupant of Greene County Jail has been held.
County officials often say that overcrowding at the jail is merely a symptom of a larger problem with an underfunded criminal justice system and community services. Too few public defenders, prosecutors or judges means cases take longer to move through the system, they say. And disjointed and inadequate services to help those with mental health and substance abuse problems aren’t keeping many offenders from getting sent to jail time and again.
As of Dec. 17, the Greene County Sheriff’s Office was responsible for 828 inmates, according to Cpl. James Craigmyle. The main jail facility has a capacity of 601 beds. An additional 108 live in the trailers next door. That leaves about 100 a day who are shipped to other counties across the state. That number is expected to grow, according to Arnott.
Greene County is not alone.
Jail overcrowding is a national crisis, particularly in medium, small and rural counties. According to Vera Institute of Justice, the national pretrial incarceration rate has more than tripled between 1973 and 2013. That’s for people being held in jail who have been charged with a crime but have yet to be tried.
About once or twice a month, different county officials and sheriffs from across the country visit Greene County’s trailer jail, according to Arnott.
They’re all facing the same problem — “They have so many inmates and nowhere to go with them,” Arnott said. Even for sheriffs who do have the bed space, they often don’t have the money to hire the number of staff needed to oversee the inmates, he said.
They come from all over to see the trailer jail in action, with the idea that the model that Greene County is pioneering might be a solution for them as well.
“There is really no other place like it, so we have people coming in and seeing how we make it work,” Arnott said.
A News-Leader search found that several places — from Florida to Idaho — have considered contracting with All Detainment Solutions since the company built its first trailer jail in Greene County. They include New Port Richey, Florida; Clinton County, Missouri; and Hancock County, Indiana.
So far, at least one other community has committed to leasing a trailer jail from the company.
In August, Canyon County, Idaho, officials approved a $4.5 million lease agreement with All Detainment Solutions for a temporary jail, where they plan to house 122 women, the Idaho Press reported.
The Idaho trailer jail’s design is notably more spacious. According to Idaho Press, the female inmates will be held in 28 semi-trailers, more than four times as many trailers than those that house Greene County’s 108 inmates.
Arnott told the News-Leader that the state of Missouri, unlike some other states, doesn’t have minimum jail construction standards. Jails are required to follow building codes.
The American Correctional Association offers operational standards meant to ensure safety and security, protect agencies against litigation and more. The association says cells and rooms used for holding inmates should provide per person at least 25 square feet of “unencumbered space,” or space that is not blocked by any furnishings or fixtures.
The trailer jail and all but two housing units in the entire Greene County Jail facility do not meet the American Correctional Association’s standards. According to numbers provided by Arnott, each inmate in the trailer jail has less than 22 square feet of unencumbered space.
“(They) do not meet the ACA standards due to the amount of inmates we need to house with the space provided,” Arnott said. “We do what we can.”
Jails are not required to meet those standards, and according to Arnott, most in Missouri do not.
Orange Shipping Container
The idea for the temporary jail came from an orange shipping container that sits next to the jail. Arnott said he originally bought the shipping container to use as storage. It didn’t take long for him to start thinking — what if Greene County refurbished it to store people?
It took several years for Greene County to find a company that could provide the type of modular facility they were looking for. Earlier proposals were too expensive, energy-inefficient and raised security concerns, Arnott said.
It wasn’t until All Detainment Solutions offered a bid last year that Arnott found something that could work.
It was a newly created company, by brothers Timothy and Anthony Kelly, who specialized in building modular structures used as emergency shelters after natural disasters. Greene County would be their first jail client.
Arnott said he and his employees worked collaboratively with All Detainment Solutions to create a design — using insulated refrigerator semi-trailers, instead of shipping containers as Arnott first imagined. They implemented a variety of security features, including motion detectors, multiple layers of razor wire, cameras and more.
“I had concerns, when the trailers first rolled in, whether it would work or not,” Arnott said. “When you look at it from the outside, it looks very small. When you get in and have it all connected, it seems a lot bigger.”
Inside Greene County’s ‘trailer park jail’
Patrick John Field said he was moved into the trailer jail the first day it opened in December 2017.
Field is familiar with life inside the Greene County Jail. His father estimated that his son has spent about half of his adult life in prison or various county jails.
However, living inside a series of semi-trailers with about 100 other men was a new experience for Field, whose most recent stint in detention stemmed from charges of domestic violence.
There were problems with the plumbing in the trailers, Field told the News-Leader in March. Water leaked out of the base of the toilets, creating a pool of standing liquid in the combination shower-and-bathroom trailer, he said.
“You could see there was standing urine and fecal matter. We had to walk through that in our shower shoes,” Field said.
He said inmates left trails of contaminated water to other parts of the trailer jail, including places where they eat and sleep. He called it a “health hazard.”
Field said he fell ill multiple times. He blamed the conditions inside the trailer jail.
There were other problems. Rain leaked through air vents on the trailers and pooled on the floor, he said, and there was mold in one of the “sleeper” trailers. He worried about safety and wondered if the officers staffing the trailer jail would be able to squeeze through the narrow trailers to break up a conflict if a big fight broke out.
For Field, it wasn’t all bad. In one way he preferred staying in the temporary jail over the permanent jail, he said.
Inmates are allowed to move around inside the trailers, he said. They’re not stuck behind a locked door inside a cell, as is the case in some other parts of the jail. The feeling of being trapped in a room gives him anxiety.
Not everybody feels that way, though, Field said.
“A lot of people have flipped out,” he said, noting that some of the inhabitants of the trailer jail have post-traumatic stress disorder and react poorly to loud noises and crowds.
Rachel Field, his mother, told the News-Leader, “I think they deserve sanitary conditions … There needs to be some level of propriety here — just proper conditions, even though they may have committed crimes.”
Online court records show that Patrick John Field pleaded guilty to two counts of domestic violence in September. He is no longer in the Greene County jail.
Arnott acknowledged there were issues with the plumbing and with rainwater getting into the trailers through air vents during the trailers’ first months of use. He said the water from the toilets did not contain fecal matter or urine.
Those problems were quickly fixed by the company, Arnott said.
He hasn’t seen any mold, either. The walls and fixtures inside the trailer jail are stainless steel, which is nonporous and easy to clean, he said. There are daily facilities inspections. The trailers also feature a “state-of-the-art” HVAC system that regulates humidity, barometric pressure and air quality, according to Arnott.
The permanent jail has long had issues with humidity, and a grand jury, tasked with inspecting county buildings, recently called it “dangerously crowded.” The grand jury noted problems with mold and odor in the main jail facility.
“I would say (the trailers are) better than our other units,” Arnott said.
One afternoon in December, Arnott and Major Royce Denny offered to take a News-Leader reporter on a tour of the trailer jail.
Though it was a chilly day, the air inside the trailers was warm and musty, an unavoidable effect of having more than 100 men living in tight quarters, Arnott explained. In the temporary jail, the HVAC system circulates fresh air into the facility every 12 minutes, making the odor less pungent than other jail pods, added Denny.
Inmates were crowded into the three “sleeper” trailers, where three-tiered bunk beds are built into the walls. Some men laid down on their thin blue mattresses. Others had craned their necks and backs into unnatural positions in order to sit upright.
Arnott stopped at the end of a narrow walkway, greeted the inmates and asked: “I got a question … would you rather be in this unit or would you rather be in a regular pod?”
He got mixed responses. Two or three men said they’d rather be in a regular pod.
Another said he prefers the trailers: “It’s got its ups and downs, man. There’s more personal space in the (other) pods. This has got a little more freedom to move around a little more and socialize. I like it out here and the rec yard is nice.”
The men inside the trailer jail are, for the most part, allowed to roam between the different rooms, Arnott explained. For a breath of fresh air and a peek at the sky, they can step outside into the recreational yard, which is blocked in by the walls of the trailers and a metal mesh canopy. The canopy serves two purposes — to keep inmates in and to keep drones and contraband out.
One compartment is dedicated to showers and toilets. There was no feces or urine in sight when the News-Leader visited.
Two other trailers are combined to create a “day room,” outfitted with chairs, tables and phones.
“This is temperature-controlled. They have telephones. They have television. They have tablet computers. They have a snack machine,” Arnott said. “… I think we treat everyone fairly, whether you’re in the temporary jail or the regular jail. It’s all the same.”
‘Recipe for disaster’?
Four national experts were asked to review photos and previously published information about the trailer jail.
They all agreed: They have never seen a design like it before.
Most reacted with sharp criticism, raising concerns about the safety and security of the facility, as well as the physical and psychological impact of crowded conditions on inmates.
One, a former sheriff himself, said he felt sympathy for Arnott, who has little control over the jail population and must make do with the budget he’s given.
Dolovich, a law professor and the director of UCLA’s Prison Law and Policy Program said, “The fact it’s unique doesn’t make it not bad, something can be uniquely bad. There’s a reason why nobody has done this, and it’s not because they’re not thinking creatively.”
Arnott defended the county’s facility. He said the critics must be “uneducated” about jails and unfamiliar with the way Greene County’s trailer jail is built and run.
“These people have obviously not seen it (in person),” Arnott said. “I think they need to come see the facility. I would welcome them to come down to the facility. We feel it’s very appropriate and it’s a good use of tax dollars. We’ve had very few problems.”
Dolovich said her immediate reaction upon seeing photos of the trailer jail was “horror.”
“To anyone who suggests that these conditions are acceptable for those people who have found themselves in jail, I would ask them to consider — if it’s their loved ones, their sons and daughters who find themselves in those conditions — would they think it’s OK? Anyone who would answer that question in the affirmative is not being honest,” Dolovich said.
Dolovich said she’s worried for inmates’ health.
“It doesn’t have to be the Hilton, but we would be concerned if we held animals in those conditions,” she said. “… Every human being needs a certain amount of personal space. No one can live like this without suffering serious physical and psychological harm.”
Dolovich said the situation appears to be a “clear constitutional violation of the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown’s People Law Center in Chicago, appeared to agree with Dolovich.
“Someone is going to be seriously injured and they’re going to bring a big case,” Mills said.
*”It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of these people are innocent. They’re not convicted of anything. It’s not constitutional to use a jail to punish people,” Mills said.
He said the conditions in Greene County’s trailer jail appeared “inhumane.”
“Stuffed Like Sardines”
“You’re stuffing a lot of people in like sardines in this tiny little space,” he said. “The potential for interpersonal conflicts, and just the discomfort level, is astounding.”
David Shapiro, director of appellate litigation for the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school and former staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, called the trailer jail design a “recipe for disaster.”
“It would be hard to imagine a worse design from the standpoint of safety and security,” Shapiro said. “Not to mention the fact it just looks miserable to be living in those bunks in those incredibly cramped spaces.”
Shapiro said the long, narrow layout would make it difficult for officers to see what’s happening in all parts of the trailer jail at all times.
Even with security cameras monitoring the inmates, Shapiro said, navigating the trailers would pose a security concern for officers.
“In that really tight space and nowhere to retreat to, it would be pretty easy to grab an officer as he or she goes by, to ambush the officer or to take the officer hostage,” he said.
Gary Raney, former sheriff of Ada County, Idaho, and past chair of the Pretrial Justice Institute, said he is sympathetic to the plight of the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.
“Sheriffs are often faced with jail overcrowding, and it appears Sheriff Arnott has been dealing with this problem for some time,” Raney said.
“The difficult thing for a sheriff is that he or she has no control over how many people are in jail or how long they stay. Therefore, the sheriff has to manage the jail as best he or she can within the budget given.”
Raney called the trailer jail concept “new and intriguing” but noted that it might follow other patterns of temporary jail housing, “most of which have proven problematic.”
He said that the furniture and fixtures inside the temporary jail appear well-built. However, generally speaking, temporary housing for inmates presents issues.
“Most who have used short-term fixes … have found that they do not provide adequate security, they wear rapidly and the living conditions can lead to litigation,” Raney said.
Raney and every other expert that the News-Leader interviewed talked about the importance of reducing the overall jail population by keeping people charged with low-level crimes out of jail.
Arnott said the Greene County criminal justice system has done that.
“We have done a lot of initiatives to cut back the jail population,” he said. “We have every specific court you can imagine.”
What Arnott is referencing is Greene County’s collection of treatment courts, which includes veterans court, homeless court, mental health court, drug court and more. These are special diversionary programs that offer an alternative to being sent to jail. They are customized to serve people’s needs by connecting them to existing services such as therapy, substance abuse treatment and programs to teach them life skills.
“The population that we have in the jail are the child molesters, the armed robbers, the homicide suspects, the rapists and the serious domestic violence cases,” Arnott said.
“Those are the people who stay in jail … I can guarantee you, this sheriff is not going to go to the judges and say, we need to let some of these people out, because we need to keep them (in jail).”
Commissioner Lincoln Hough, one of the county officials who approved the contract with All Detainment Solutions, said the trailer jail is a “Band-Aid” solution that has worked for the time being.
“It’s not a long-term solution,” Hough said. “It’s a short-term solution and I think the long-term solution I’ve always believed in investing in programs that curb recidivism and head off individuals that will end up in our facility.”
.Alissa Zhu is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and edited version of her reporting project. The full version is available here.