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The Inside:

The Front Door

to Mass Incarceration

A Collaboration between UNIS Human Right Project & Proof: Media for Social Justice

America’s 3,000 jails are sometimes referred to as our front door to mass incarceration. On any given day, they hold over 730,000 people. Unlike prisons, which are run by the state and federal government and typically incarcerate those with sentences of one year or longer, jails are usually short-terms facilities, operated by counties or cities. Jails hold people who are awaiting their trials, are deemed a danger to public safety or a flight risk, or are unable to make bail. The Bureau of Justice reports that about 66% of those in jail have not been convicted of a crime, but are awaiting trial. In New York City, the number is closer to 75%

Jails, like prisons, have become a dumping ground for people with substance abuse and mental health problems. Nearly 68% of people in jail and more than half of those in state prison have been diagnosed with a substance use disorder, compared with  9% of the general population. The majority of jail inmates also have a history of mental illness, poverty, and homelessness. A 2015 study in NYC found that “of the 800 people who spent the most time cycling through the jail system, over half were homeless. The top charges in these cases were petit larceny, drug possession and trespassing.”

New York City is home to one of the largest and most notorious jail complexes in the United States. Rikers is a 400-acre island in the East River across from LaGuardia Airport that has 10 jails and holds about 7,000 inmates daily. About 80% of those held on Rikers have not been convicted of a crime. They are pretrial detainees who have been remanded to custody or held on bail. The vast majority are Black and Hispanic males from low-income neighborhoods. Almost 40% of Rikers inmates have been diagnosed with a mental health issue. It costs $271,000 to house someone at Rikers for a year.

Rikers is known for violence, as a place where “people are treated like they are less than human and leave detention more badly damaged than when they entered.” In 2014, the Department of Justice described a “deep-seated culture of violence” against male teenagers held at Rikers, perpetrated by correctional officers’ use of unnecessary and excessive force. Their report also claimed that teenagers were subjected to an “excessive and inappropriate” degree of solitary confinement, sometimes for months at a time. 

Mayor De Blasio announced plans in 2017 to close Rikers and replace the jails with smaller ones throughout NYC. Former inmates and activists have long advocated for the closure Rikers, but the Department of Justice Report helped give new momentum to a grassroots campaign.

In recent years, the jail population has decreased in large cities, including NYC, but has been increasing in rural areas.

Test your knowledge.

Chapter 07

Question 1

Of the over 2 million people behind bars, how many are held in jails on any given day?

Correct! Wrong!

Over 500,000 people are held in jails on any given day.

Chapter 07 — Question 01
Continue to

Chapter Eight

Women Behind Bars