While jail populations have dropped 18 percent in urban areas since 2013, they have climbed 27 percent in rural areas, says the Vera Institute of Justice.
The skyrocketing rural jail numbers in many countries are driven by increases in arrests of individuals with substance abuse problems in a reflection of the U.S. opioid epidemic, he New York Times reports.
In Hamblen County, Tn., where the sheriff describes the county jail as a dangerously overcrowded “cesspool of a dungeon,Hamblen residents who commit crimes to support their addiction now pack the 255-bed jail, which had 439 inmates in October.
According to the sheriff, because of overcrowding, inmates are sleeping on mats in the hallways, lawyers are forced to meet clients in a supply closet and the people inside are subjected to “horrible conditions.”
Many cities have treatment options and diversion programs to help drug users, but such alternatives aren’t available in many small towns.
While jail populations have dropped 18 percent in urban areas since 2013, they have climbed 27 percent in rural areas, says Vera in a new report, citing estimates drawn from a sample of data from about 850 counties across the U.S.
Suburban jail populations have remained about the same since 2013, while small and midsize cities saw a 7 percent increase. Rural jails now lock up people at a rate more than double that of urban areas.
Drug use isn’t the only reason some rural jails are packed. State prisons sometimes pay counties with extra bed space to house inmates, and so does the federal government.
The number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees held in jails rose by about 4,300 from 2013 to 2017, Vera estimates.
Small towns lag cities in efforts to reduce incarceration, such as releasing nonviolent offenders without requiring them to pay hefty bail amounts while awaiting their day in court.
The rural jail boom runs counter to a nationwide push toward reducing incarceration. Jail fights are common, said a former sheriff’s deputy who is now serving time himself for theft.
“Tensions run high when you got 60 people in a 20-man pod,” he said.