PRINEVILLE, Oregon — The noise in the tiny jail, built decades ago to house firefighting equipment, is constant. Voices bounce off the walls.
Nothing dissipates the dank smell. There’s no natural light. Fluorescent bulbs give the green walls a sickly hue.
If a fire broke out, a jailer notes, each cell door must be unlocked individually and someone would have to run outside to unlock an emergency exit.
“I personally think this is an embarrassment to our community,” Sheriff John Gautney says of the 16-bunk Crook County Jail in central Oregon.
The county has put a $10 million proposal on the November ballot to build a new jail. But such measures are unpopular among voters.
Inadequate and unsafe jails are problems across the United States, with aging facilities holding an increasing number of people. They often operate independently with little to no oversight, experts say, and with reluctance to spend public money to build jails, it seems unlikely the decrepit structures will see a face-lift anytime soon.
“These are local issues that require local solutions, but the problem is national in its scope,” said Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation.
From 1970 to 2014, the average daily number of inmates held in the roughly 3,000 county jails in America increased four-fold, from 157,000 to 690,000, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, which works with government and civil leaders to improve justice systems.
Conditions are often wretched, like in the jail in Prineville.
“It’s pretty much a dungeon,” prisoner Anthony Kinsey, jailed on methamphetamine charges, said over the phone. “There are four people in each cell; it’s real crowded. The toilet is right by your head.”
David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s national prison project, calls America’s neglected jails “a failure of democracy.”
“Prisoners are a small, powerless and despised minority, unable to protect their rights through the democratic system,” Fathi said.
The Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association inspects all county jails in the state.
John Bishop, the executive director of the nonprofit association, said some jails are so old they can’t pass many of the inspection standards.
“Federal law requires so many square feet per inmate,” Bishop said. “That didn’t exist when jails were built.”
Bishop said about half the jails in Oregon can bypass the standards because they were grandfathered in.
“Most of the old jails are extreme fire hazards,” he said. “New ones need to have sprinkler systems. Old ones don’t have them.”
Here in the Western Timber Belt where tax revenues from logging on public lands have all but vanished, many counties are hard-pressed to fund services. Items like schools get priority.
“Many counties are vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy, like the oil industry dropping in Wyoming and North Dakota,” Fathi said. “When every little county is solely responsible for funding its own little jail, that’s going to maximize the impacts.”
As for substandard jails, Bishop said: “If certain counties haven’t funded to keep up with those standards, eventually it will be the citizens who pay for that if they have a multi-million-dollar lawsuit.”
Lawsuits followed America’s last mass-casualty jail fire. It killed eight inmates in 2002 in Mitchell County, North Carolina, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Thick smoke prevented rescuers from unlocking cells. The jail, built in 1955, had no sprinkler system.
In 2003, the families of the 17 inmates housed at the jail when the fire broke out accepted a $1.94 million settlement from the county in exchange for a promise not to sue. The North Carolina Court of Appeals found that the state had breached its duty to inspect the jail, a ruling the state Supreme Court upheld. The state then settled wrongful death claims, according to Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.C., a law firm based in Montgomery, Alabama that represented the families. That settlement remains confidential.
Fathi said that, given the decentralized nature of jails in America, there’s no database to indicate how many jails are substandard. He said bad conditions more likely go unnoticed at rural jails because they’re generally small and remote, but he added that “there are plenty of dreadful large urban jails as well.”
Garduque of the MacArthur Foundation said the problem is that many detainees shouldn’t have been locked up at all, and instead should be offered programs for mental health and substance abuse issues.
“Jails have become warehouses for the poor and the nation’s largest mental health institutions, in some respects,” she said in a phone interview from Chicago. She noted that a disproportionate number of low-income citizens who can’t afford bail for minor crimes and people of color are in jail.
Fully 75 percent of prisoners are in for nonviolent offenses, she said.
Kinsey, the Crook County inmate, said he wants to stay straight, in particular to help his 76-year-old mother who has multiple sclerosis. He believes that without help, the drugs could snare him once he’s out.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he said. “I’m trying to get into treatment.”