Jail Standards and Inspection Programs

A jail cell
A jail cell

A substantial body of law protects the rights of the accused and incarcerated as well as those of the victims of crimes. All citizens enjoy the right to due process, to a fair and speedy trial, and to appeal a verdict all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. The decision to prosecute is based on the sufficiency of the evidence the police have uncovered and on a grand jury process.

Trial is by a jury of one’s peers, which hears the evidence and decides guilt or innocence based on the facts presented. Although not perfect, the system has checks and balances and has as its goal fairness and equal treatment for all. Unfortunately, conditions in some U.S. jails do not reflect the enlightenment of the nation’s legal system.

Appalling conditions, including overcrowding, a lack of sanitation and appropriate medical care, and poorly trained and abusive guards can still be found in jails that are subject to little or no regulatory oversight or that have no set of standards to follow.
Stakeholders responsible for building, funding, operating, or working in a jail and citizens in communities in which jails are located should be aware of the following facts:

  • Jails hold a wide variety of inmates. Often the public thinks that all the “really bad people” are in a prison somewhere in another part of the state. In fact, every person who goes to prison has spent time in a local com- munity jail while awaiting trial and sentenc- ing. This means that a neighbor sent to jail for shoplifting may be in jail with someone accused of rape or murder.
  • Inmates need to be protected while in custody. An inmate has a right to a safe environment while in jail. This objective is advanced by placing an inmate in a housing area that is appropriate for his/her unique set of characteristics (e.g., handicapped, developmentally disabled, suicidal, in need of special medical attention).
  • Most inmates will return to the commu­nity. Jails do not simply lock inmates up and toss away the key, and inmates who are not treated properly while in custody will likely continue to have the same problems that resulted in their arrest once they are back in the community.
  • People with mental health problems con­stitute a large portion of the jail population. Surveys indicate that many inmates in the United States have a diagnosable mental health problem (James and Glaze, 2006). Returning them to the community without a plan for continued counseling and medication often sets them up for failure and a quick return to jail.
  • Inmates lose very few basic individual rights when they are incarcerated. Felons may lose the right to vote, to own firearms, and to obtain certain professional licenses. They do not lose the right to be free of abuse, to contact and retain legal counsel, and to converse with and visit their friends and relatives under defined conditions.
  • The jail setting and conditions are not meant to be punishment. The function of a jail is to safely and humanely hold inmates remanded to its custody by the courts. Some of these inmates have only been charged with a crime but not yet adjudicated. The jail holds these inmates to ensure their appearance in court and/or to protect the community until their next court appearance or until they are otherwise released (e.g., bail). For jail inmates who have been convicted of crimes, the punishment is isolation from society rather than the conditions of confinement. Holding inmates under inhumane conditions (i.e., cold, dark, dank cells) is inappropriate and illegal.
  • Inmates have a right to medical treat­ment. All inmates deserve an acceptable standard of medical care. Because inmates are unable to access medical treatment in the community the way that free persons can, the courts have determined that it is the responsibility of the jail to provide this medical care.
  • Inmates must be provided with adequate, nutritional meals. Dieticians should ensure that each meal provides inmates with a balanced diet appropriate to their age and medical conditions. Teenagers may need a different caloric intake than older inmates. Diabetics, inmates on dialysis, and those with food allergies all need to have medically approved and appropriate diets. Inmates with legitimate religious dietary restrictions also must be accommodated.
  • Inmates must be provided with clean clothes and bedding. Clothing, towels, and bedding must be exchanged, laundered, and inspected on a regular basis. Failing to do so will result in an unhygienic facility for both the inmates and the staff.
  • Inmates are not the only ones in the facility. Besides the inmates, there are the officers who work with and supervise them, cooks and maintenance people, nurses, ven- dors, educators, and volunteers. An unsafe facility puts community members at risk. Facilities operate around the clock, without time off for holidays or weekends. Those who work in the jail are entitled to a work setting that is safe, stable, and healthy.
  • Inmates are at a higher risk of attempt­ing or actually committing suicide than the general population. Research indicates that the suicide rate in jails is 47 deaths per 100,000 population, compared with approximately 11 deaths per 100,000 in the community at large (Mumola, 2005). Factors associated with inmate suicide and suicide attempts include isolation, the prospect of spending large amounts of time locked up, and mental health problems.

Rationale for Jail Standards and Inspection Programs

  • Most people see the value of standards as a guide to how jails should be operated and maintained. The rationale for independent inspections and regulatory oversight to ensure that these standards are met is more difficult for some to accept. However, it is in society’s best interest to ensure that jails are used and operated properly. This can be achieved only by establishing a clear set of standards coupled with a process of inspections and followup to see that any identified deficiencies are corrected.

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