New report charts the growth of rural jails in America

The Vera Institute of Justice has just released a comprehensive, urgent, and essential report on the growth of rural jails in America. "Of the 250 poorest counties, 213 of them are rural, representing locations with the most acute needs across the board," the report notes. And yet "relatively little is known about the inner workings of rural criminal justice systems and, specifically, how rural jails operate—their characteristics, the challenges they face, and the opportunities that exist for reform."

It's hard to overstate how glad I am that researchers have finally tackled this issue, which has "received scant attention," the report concludes, "because cities continue to be the focal point of both academic inquiry and policymaking.” 

The report raises a diverse range of troubling issues, but I'll just highlight a few that are relevant to rural Arkansas jails:

  • LIMITED DELIVERY OF JUSTICE. Due to the poverty and limited tax base, rural counties "often struggle to provide many services—such as education or healthcare—as well as fund and deliver justice, including recruiting key justice personnel and providing even the most basic criminal justice services necessary to process criminal cases through the system." These services include basic investigations by the police and prosecution. 
  • REMOTE LOCATIONS. Courts are spread out across vast amounts of land. "The distances that the few available personnel are often required to travel further frustrate case flow and efficient court operations, extending case processing times, despite comparatively lower overall caseload numbers."
  • SHORTAGE OF SKILLED PRACTITIONERS. Rural counties "lack skilled practitionersjudges, prosecutors, investigators, public defenders, and court administrators—to run or oversee the basic functions of a local criminal justice system, posing serious operational challenges." 
  • INTENSELY LIMITED COURT DAYS. Court convened in Phillips County in four three-week sessions during the year.  "In contrast, Manhattan’s arraignment courts, for example, are open for sessions from early morning until 1:00 am, every day of the week." In other words, when court isn't convened, the people arrested -- still innocent in the eyes of the law -- are sitting around, languishing, waiting months before arraignment. And it means that they've lost the jobs they had and are separated from families.
  • FEW PRETRIAL SERVICE PROGRAMS or DIVERSION PROGRAMS. Resource-scarce counties don't have staff or tools to help make individualized assessments of people who are arrested. And rehabilitation, mental health, and education programs are rare. 

 

Ida B. Wells, Heroic Journalist and Activist, Covers the Elaine Massacre in 1919

In 1919, in Elaine, Arkansas, black sharecroppers organized in a church to demand wages. What ensued was the largest racial massacre that occurred in American history. Hundreds of black people, including children and women, were shot down, openly, on the streets. And hundreds more were rounded up in the Phillips County jail. Twelve were convicted and sentenced to death; the convictions that would ultimately be reversed by the Supreme Court.

The heroic journalist Ida B. Wells traveled to the jail, disguising herself as a relative. (They were held in the same jail where I visited Patrick.) She published The Arkansas Race Riot a year later, recording the perspectives of the men who had been falsely accused.

Born a slave in rural Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida Wells-Barnett grew up during emancipation and Reconstruction. She had raised her five siblings on meager wages as a rural schoolteacher. She became one of the most passionate anti-lynching activists and the first African American woman to own her own newspaper.

Here's an excerpt from her reporting: 

I was at Hoop Spur Church that night to lodge meeting. I do know that four or five automobiles full of white men came about fifty yards from the church and put the lights out, then started shooting in the church with about 200 head of, men, women and children. I was on the outside of the church and saw this for myself. Then I ran after they started firing in on the church. I don’t know if anybody got killed at, all. I went home and stayed home that night, then the white people was sending word that they was going to kill all the black people, then I run back in the woods and hid two days then the soldiers came then, I made it to them. I was carried in Elaine and put in the school house and I was there eight days. Then I was brought to Helena and put in jail and whipped near to death and was put in an electric chair to make me lie on other Negroes. It was not the union that brought this trouble; it was our crops. They took everything I had, twenty-two acres of cotton, three acres of corn. All that was taken from me and my people. Also all my household goods. Clothes and all. All my hogs, chickens and everything my people had. I was whipped twice in jail. These white people know that they started this trouble. This union was only for a blind. We were threatened before this union was there to make us leave our crops.

 

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) recently released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, the culmination of a multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states. Phillips County, where Elaine is located, had 243 lynchings, the most of any county.