The federal government has played an outsized—and largely unnoticed—role in fueling rural jail expansion over the past several decades, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Aggressive federal policies targeting drug offenders and undocumented immigrants have generated a “carceral arms race” over the past two decades that forces rural jurisdictions to compete for more federal inmates to pay for the costs of building larger jails, Vera said in the latest study for its “In Our Backyards” project, which examines the human and social impact of incarceration across the country.
The study, entitled “If You Build It,” was released on the eve of the final Democratic Party candidates’ debate before next month’s Iowa caucus, and is explicitly aimed at putting the crisis in rural jails higher on the national criminal justice agenda.
“Nearly all (the Democratic presidential candidates) are quick to note that the federal government has only a small role in the various and massive state prison systems,” wrote study authors Jack Norton and Jacob Kang-Brown.
“What they don’t mention, however, is that the federal government is playing a large and overlooked role in the incarceration of people in jails in rural counties and small cities in Iowa and across the country.”
Many observers have pointed out that rural jails are suffering from overcrowded conditions and a lack of treatment and counseling services to address individuals who have mental health or substance abuse issues arising from the nation’s opioid epidemic.
But the study suggests that Washington’s tough-on-crime agenda, driven by the War on Drugs and the crackdown on illegal immigration, has skewed public safety priorities in the heartland by encouraging counties to place building larger jails higher on the agenda than developing alternatives to punishment, —while saddling them with higher financial risk.
“The promise of per diem payments from the USMS (U.S. Marshals Service) and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has helped local administrators build larger jails and expand their operating budgets,” the study says.
“Bigger jails enable counties to incarcerate immigrants and asylum seekers for ICE and pretrial detainees held for USMS, which in turn generates revenue that offsets the cost of detaining and incarcerating local people.
“County leaders also try to build up local jail capacity in order to avoid paying neighboring counties to hold people for them. The result has been an intercounty carceral arms race in much of the country, producing greater capacity to incarcerate at the local level, and bigger and bigger jails.”
The dynamic dates to the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which led to increased prosecution of drug offenders, and nearly doubled federal criminal caseloads by 1990, forcing the USMS to find additional housing for federal pretrial detainees in rural areas, since many big-city jails were already under court orders because of overcrowding.
The study authors noted pointedly that one of the leading supporters of the 1984 bill was former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the frontrunners in the race for the Democratic nomination.
In 2000, Congress created the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee, a small unit in the Department of Justice to coordinate jail and prison expansion with local and state governments. The pressure to find more jail capacity grew following the Sept 11 terror attacks, and then accelerated further when Washington toughened policies aimed at curbing undocumented immigration.
The Trustee unit merged with the USMS in 2012, and by fiscal year 2018, nearly 30,000 individuals facing federal criminal charges were locked up in local jails—at a cost of $1 billion, the study said.
“From the point of view of the USMS and ICE, using jails in rural counties outsources the work of siting and constructing detention facilities, while shifting the financial risk onto counties,” the study added.
“Consequently, these counties are encouraged to invest in an increased ability to lock people up.”
‘Dispersed and Shifting Network’
Although there is no nationwide system of federal jails, the Vera study said, increasing numbers of federal detainees are now held in a “dispersed and shifting network of locally run county jails.”
With an eye towards the state caucuses, the authors singled out the impact in Iowa.
Marshall County, in the central part of the state, built a 180-bed, $4 million jail in 2000 to replace its old facility which had a maximum capacity of 23 people, in the county seat of Marshalltown. In the summer of 2019, about half the beds in the new jail were occupied by ICE detainees and prisoners shipped from other counties.
“ICE is constantly looking for bed space,” jail administrator Patrick White told the authors. “They say, ‘Hey, I have four or five bodies, so you have room for them?’”
Similarly, just 30 miles north of Marshalltown, in Hardin County, officials built a $5.1 million jail to replace a condemned 80-year-old facility in 1998. Some 70 percent of the jail capacity is now used to house ICE detainees. By 2010 the county had paid off the debt for building the jail thanks largely to ICE payments.
While building more and bigger jails may have helped rural states like Iowa address the economic pressures caused by unemployment and higher costs of services, not all residents are on board.
The study quoted Steve Schroeder, administrator of the jail in Jackson County, who complained that a recent bond vote to build a new jail so authorities could stop paying nearby counties to house prisoners, failed because voters in one part of the county wanted to spend the money on a new school instead.
“People in the Bellevue area, if they’re going to pay more taxes, would rather see their taxes go towards a school than a jail,” he told the study authors.
“Which is disheartening. But you know, the people have a right to vote.”
The full study can be downloaded here.