Friday, January 25, 2008

How many jails can the country actually hold?

By David Webb - The Rare Reporter
Jan 24, 2008, 22:22

Maybe more thought should be given to deterring crime

Every morning as I head for work I pass the construction site of the new south tower of the Dallas County jail complex at Industrial Boulevard and Commerce Street.

It never fails to give me the creeps.

Dallas County officials tout the new building, which is scheduled for completion by January 2009, as a long, overdue improvement. The new addition to the Lou Sterrett Justice Center will house 2,304 prisoners in a total of 36 pods of 64 inmates each, according to Dallas County Judge Jim Foster’s January 2008 newsletter, Issue 1, of what he plans to be a regular publication by his office.

Each pod will have a detention supervising office, and each floor will have medical exam facilities. It will replace two existing jails that operate at offsite locations, eliminating the need to transfer prisoners to and from the county complex, which also includes the Frank Crowley Court Building.

The price tag for the new jail — $62 million — an astronomical sum that will undoubtedly rise before completion.

Unfortunately for me, when I look at the construction site I don’t see progress in motion. What I see is an ugly, intimidating structure that will be used to warehouse people who have lost their way in life.

To me it is a grim reminder of how badly society has failed the disadvantaged — poverty-stricken children and the mentally ill to name a couple of examples.

Rather than using our resources to intervene in the lives of children who suffer from poverty and neglect and are often the victim of crimes themselves, we are using it to build jails and prisons where they can be locked away when they reach an age where rehabilitation is — if not impossible — highly unlikely. Poverty and mental illness are inextricably linked to crime, and we are using our resources to punish people instead of trying to help them overcome their disadvantages.

The criminal justice system has become an enormous economic machine, providing profits for everyone from the construction worker at the site of the new jail to the judges sitting on the benches in the courtrooms who will decide the fates of the inhabitants of the new structure — not to mention the battalions of police officers on the street who are needed to inject people into the system. The sheer number of employees and entrepreneurs engaged in the operation of the criminal justice system is mind boggling.

The truth is you couldn’t dismantle it without throwing the country into an economic crisis.

I don’t have an answer for this conundrum, nor is it a unique observation. A lawyer who was involved in social justice issues first brought it to my attention years ago when the Lou Sterret Justice Center was a new building. Since then, the problem has gotten only worse.

What I’d like to see now is for the politicians and officials my local and federal taxes help employ searching for different solutions than merely locking people up for various periods of time to keep them out of trouble. Surely, there’s a limit to how many jails and prisons can be built.

I’m all for law and order and I understand safe and humane facilities must be maintained for detaining criminals, but I’d far rather see my taxes being spent to feed and house children, the elderly, the mentally ill and others who are helpless.

Jail is not the place for that.

Maybe that would be a good topic for a story in Foster’s newsletter — what he thinks could be done to prevent people from becoming criminals rather than him citing the construction of a new jail and the hiring of new jail guards as accomplishments in 2007.

It’s just a thought.


This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 25, 2008

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