The tragedy of American mass incarceration isn’t just a problem causing the country’s prisons to be inhumanely overcrowded. Our local jails—even in our nation’s capital—are also afflicted.
In a feature article in the December issue of Reason, criminal justice reporter C.J. Ciaramella writes:
In 1976, a new D.C. jail opened its doors—the one still in use today. The old one was emptied and eventually torn down. Its stones were used to restore the venerable Smithsonian Castle; they had been mined from the same quarry a century before. But the new facility’s troubles began before the ribbon cutting: The maximum capacity when it opened was 960 inmates. The average daily population of inmates that year was 1,218. In other words, D.C. built an institution that was overcrowded before the first resident bunked down for the night.
The story of the D.C. jail is a tale of the repeated triumph of hope over experience. District politicians have always wanted to lock up more people than they’re willing to pay to incarcerate. Even in the capital city, with all the resources of the federal government to draw on and the best possible chance to influence national policy, the District of Columbia seems incapable of building and running its single jail effectively. Without a re-evaluation of who we’re keeping in jail, why we’re keeping them there, and what we expect them to do during and after their incarceration, history looks very likely to repeat itself.