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June 30, 2022

Program in Racism, Immigration and Citizenship hosts discussion on mass incarceration in the United States

By LUBNA AZMI | March 14, 2022

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COURTESY OF LUBNA AZMI

Geographer and Senior Research Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice Jack Norton emphasized that mass incarceration in rural areas highlights the need for better policy. 

The Program in Racism, Immigration and Citizenship (RIC) hosted the third event of their Spring 2022 Freedom Education series on March 11, “Why is Mass Incarceration Booming in the U.S.?,” featuring Jack Norton, a geographer and senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice. 

Norton discussed how in 2019, it was found that the incarceration rate has decreased in bigger cities, with urban incarceration having decreased 18% since 2013, but has increased substantially in rural counties, with incarceration having risen 27% since 2013

“Counties have been building bigger and bigger jails, counties across the country. It’s a pattern we’re seeing, a massive increase in the ability to lock people in cages in the United States. This has led to a massive increase in total carceral capacity in the United States... We call this the ‘Quiet Jail Boom,’” he said. “Any gains in decarceration, for people like me who want to decarcerate, were erased by increases in [this] rural-city incarceration.”

About 631,000 people are in county jails on any given day, and 1,240,000 are in state prisons. Norton also underscored that there are millions of people cycling in and out of the jails every day, so there are many more going in and out. 

His work over the past five years has been focused on understanding why people are frequently in and out of jail in rural counties and small cities. Norton emphasized that he works as a part of a larger team at the Vera Institute that is made up of advocacy and research workers. He highlighted some questions that led to his exploration.

“This is a question of what sort of future is being planned in rural America and small-city America,” he said. “How can we intervene in this and organize for a different future that is more liberatory and does not involve criminalizing people and subjecting millions of people to the violence of jail incarceration?”

His fieldwork has taken him across the country, and through his discussions with these communities, he has found that incarceration has become a major source of revenue and reliance for rural counties since the decline of coal production in many cases. 

“Around this time that the coal revenue dried up, the state’s criminal justice policy started subsidizing and incentivizing the expansion of the county jail,” he said. “Between 2011 and 2018, the number of people held in Kentucky local jails under state jurisdiction increased 39% and during the same period, the number of people held in the county on misdemeanors continued to increase.”

When discussing an interview he had with a jail administrator, he discussed how local jails help fund state prisons.

“The money that the state pays out for low-level felonies, the state has those people locked up at the county level and they pay per diem for every person that is held at the county jail, and that is a huge revenue to the county,” he said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the counties to build bigger and bigger jails, which leads to pressure to fill those capacities.” 

Senior Samiha Abd-Elazem, a board member of the Jail Tutorial Project, found the event informative. 

“I was not aware of the rise of jails in rural communities,” she said. “It was very disheartening to hear about how the economic issues in rural regions have pushed the expansion of jails to generate revenue.”

Throughout the talk, Norton used the phrase “If you build it you will fill it” in reference to the cyclical nature of these jails. He delved into how local jails are also used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants.

Stuart Schrader, associate director of RIC and one of the organizers of the event, spoke about the importance of the abolition speaker series in an interview with The News-Letter, highlighting the importance of looking at big cities and at rural communities to devise policies that best target those areas.

“One of the principles that we have as abolitionists is that abolition is not just about closing down jails and prisons, it's about also changing our broader social situation, changing our politics in our society and our economies work,” he said. “Rural areas are often off the map of what many of us study at [the] University... I think today’s talk was quite successful at shifting that lens.”

Norton similarly argued that these issues reflect counterproductive policy decisions.

“It's not that rural Americans have been asking for jails, it's that jails have been the only thing on offer for rural communities,” he said. “Rising incarceration rates in rural areas have often been framed as an inevitability, [but] incarceration actually reflects policy choices. Despite politicians revitalizing rural America, the federal government has played a key role in the rural incarceration boom.”

Norton brought to light that there are many in rural areas that are advocating against the building of these jails. Organizers and community members impacted by local incarceration spoke to the need for mental health and rehabilitative services, especially since many of the misdemeanor charges tend to be drug related, specifically the opiate epidemic in many rural areas. 

Norton emphasized how jails are being used because governments have no other plan to make communities better.

“For many Kentucky residents, the growing dependence on incarceration for local governments to scrape by, is a reminder that the state lacks a real plan to improve people's lives,” he said.

Senior Alec Holt, one of the co-leaders of the Jail Tutorial Project, expressed how surprised he was to hear about the organizing efforts happening in rural areas. 

“Hearing that people really did want money for mental health services, things like that, it always seemed like a blue-city talking point,” he said. “I never really thought that the Americans in rural Kentucky also wanted that. It makes me a bit optimistic about what the whole country wants.”

Correction: The original headline of this article referred to the Program in Race, Immigration and Citizenship instead of Racism, Immigration and Citizenship. 

The News-Letter regrets this error. 

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