The New York Times

January 1, 1996


The town square in the seat of rural Chenango County is postcard-perfect. The restored old courthouse has a gold dome and stately columns. The First Baptist Church is on one side of the square, the United Church of Christ on the other.

At one corner of the square is the tiny red brick County Jail, built in 1902. One can envision the bar brawlers and cattle rustlers being led up the wooden steps for a stay in the lockup, where friendly sheriff’s deputies played cards with prisoners and kept their keys on a big metal ring.

But today, the reality of the jail on the Norwich square, 45 miles north of Binghamton, is hardly quaint. The role of this jail, and thousands of others like it across the country, has changed significantly because they must house more hardened criminals, some for longer periods, in part because there is no room for them in overcrowded state and Federal prisons.

Inside the County Jail are one youth who is accused of shooting at his family and another who is accused of beating up a teacher for $600. There are two Federal prisoners facing drug charges. A recent inmate was an escaped prisoner from New Mexico, wanted in the killing of a teen-age boy.

Frequently, inmates with mental illnesses need to be medicated and restrained, and two years ago at least eight inmates attempted suicide. Guards have found smuggled drugs, and toothbrushes and spoons sharpened into weapons. All that in a jail that holds close to 50 inmates, up from 28 two years ago.

“It’s not like Andy and Mayberry,” said Vincent Marsenelli, the county’s Undersheriff, who has worked there for 25 years. “I kind of miss the good old days of sitting here drinking coffee and having a beer with the inmates when they get out. Those days are gone.”

The population in local jails nationwide is now more than 490,000, up from 223,500 in 1983, mirroring the rise in the number of state and Federal prisoners to exceed one million. The inmate boom is a particular challenge for jails, which traditionally held low-level offenders until they made bail, went to trial or served short sentences, but have now taken on the characteristics of prisons.

Harder-core inmates, many with drug abuse or mental health problems, are staying in jails longer, often because state and Federal prisons are crowded. Harsher penalties for crimes ranging from driving while intoxicated to failure to pay child support are crowding jails. And jails are increasingly facing security problems, from dangerous overcrowding to drug smuggling.

“You’ve got a lot of mom-and-pop local jails, and they’re just not prepared to handle the complexity of the issues,” said Mark F. Fitzgibbons, director of detention in Beaufort County, S.C., and vice president of the American Jail Association.

Dean Moser, a staff member of the National Sheriffs Association, said: “You’re seeing a very volatile situation. It’s almost like a pressure valve in them. You’re taking a county jail that was meant for 12-month sentences and less and you’re making it into a prison setting.”

The problems of housing large numbers of criminals have long plagued the large jails of New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and other big cities that hold thousands of inmates. But now those conditions are trickling down to mid-sized and even small jails. Of the nation’s 3,272 jails, 1,739 hold 50 or fewer inmates, the American Jail Association reported last year.

Jail administrators say drug abuse has compounded their problems since many inmates are on drugs or alcohol when they arrive and become violent or depressed when they realize where they are. Experts say this partly accounts for the suicide rate in jails, which is five times the rate in prisons, where sentenced inmates seem more adjusted to incarceration.

Lindsay M. Hayes, the assistant director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, who has studied jail suicides, observed: “Usually people who are in jail are there for a short period of time. They have no experience with jail. There’s fear. They’re intoxicated, so their judgment is impaired, and they don’t know if anybody on the outside cares about them.”

James L. Campbell, the Albany County Sheriff, whose jail population has gone from 500 to about 800 in six years, said: “We get the drunks, we get the drugs, we get everything, 24 hours a day. We never know what’s going to come through the door.”

Some of the arrivals find drugs inside. Michael Duncan, who works for a beer company in Caldwell, Idaho, said he served a weekend sentence in September at the Canyon County Jail for driving under the influence of alcohol and was surprised to see drug use there.

“I thought it was ridiculous to go to jail and sit there and watch people smoke dope,” he said. “As I’m lying there in the bunk, I could watch two other guys there lighting a joint.”

The strain of crowding has been particularly acute in the small jails of the rural South and West. Nancy Ortega, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, which has sued 10 county jails in Alabama in the last four years, said typically the jails have inadequate plumbing and lighting, are short on staff and are filthy. She said that when she showed up at a jail in Conecuh County, northeast of Mobile, “there was no one on duty, and inmates were carrying keys.” At another Alabama jail, each inmate had an average of six square feet of space.

“It’s really out of control,” Ms. Ortega said. “People want to jam as many inmates as possible into these jails, but they don’t want to pay for services. I’m not talking about their coffee being too cold. I’m talking about basic human needs, where it’s not 125 degrees in the cells in the summer and so cold in the winter that water in the toilet freezes, where you’re not assaulted and the guy next to you has tuberculosis.”

In Bannock County, Idaho, 180 miles north of Salt Lake City, Sheriff Bill Lynn said that until a few years ago, he had as many as 140 inmates in a jail built to hold 45. “They were sleeping in the aisleways on the way to the john,” he said. “They all had mattresses, but there weren’t really many places to walk.”

He said he had been unable to get political support for building a new prison until he was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1991 for poor conditions that he readily admitted. “The public is crying out, rightfully so I think, to put criminals in jail,” he said. “But if we’re not willing to pay for it, then we may have to let the least bad go.”

Jail conditions vary widely, experts say, and are not governed by any uniform set of standards. In some cases, state regulations have improved conditions, and in the last 20 years courts have required changes in jails where inmates brought lawsuits.

But as mid-sized county jails grew into large detention centers, the style of their management did not always seem to keep pace.

When auditors in Northampton County, Pa., began reviewing operations at the jail in Easton this year, they found widespread evidence of the theft of supplies and of employees’ falsifying records to get paid even when they were not working. In addition, auditors collected allegations of drug smuggling by guards and of sex between guards and inmates. The findings were turned over to the state’s Attorney General for investigation.

Billy Hamm, who said he had served several stints in the jail over the last two decades on theft and other charges, said he told investigators that guards knew him well enough that sometimes they let him leave during the day. He said he even continued working as a house painter while serving time.

“I’d get up in the morning, I’d go down and they’d open the door for me and I’d get in my car,” he said. “I always came back.”

Michael G. Kessler, a private investigator from New York who reviewed the jail operations for the county, said the allegations pointed to “widespread corruption.” Frank Kedl, the internal audit manager for the County Comptroller, said the inmate population had grown to nearly 500 from about 250 inmates 10 years ago and that “over the years, people had been accustomed to doing things a certain way.”

But even well-run jails have serious problems. Tom Faust, the Sheriff of Arlington County, Va., who is the president of the American Jail Association, said jails around the country are under severe financial strain because they are forced to provide increased services on tighter budgets to more inmates.

Mr. Faust, whose jail houses 500 inmates, up from 100 two decades ago, said he now provides classes in English as a second language, job training, drug and alcohol treatment and other programs. Jails, he said, have gone “from being the local lockup to essentially a full-service correctional facility.”

The strain can be seen even at the tiny Chenango County Jail in Norwich. Family visits, recreation and church services are all held in the same room. The jail administrator, Lieut. Ernest Cutting, said the jail can hold 50 inmates but accepts fewer because of a shortage of officers — with a $16,000 starting salary.

With communal cells and a small dormitory, it is difficult to keep the inmates separated by sex, age and violent tendencies.

To guard against disturbances, officers recently began locking inmates in their cells during mealtime. One of the jail’s 16 cells has Plexiglas panels over the bars for inmates thought likely to throw urine or other things at officers. In September, an inmate attacked officers, biting one of them.

Lieutenant Cutting said the jail was a homey place only a few years ago. Vagrants looking for warm beds in the winter would break windows, hoping for 30- or 60-day sentences in the jail, he said.

“Now, the way it is,” he said, “we’re not just a little jail anymore.”

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