Friday, July 11, 2014

Guest Post On Jail Expansion Alternatives

photo by Andrew Jenner, an excellent blogger on this topic
The following letter by local mental health and criminal justice advocate Sam Nickels was sent to members of the Harrisonburg City Council and the Rockingham Board of Supervisors earlier this week. Nickels is director of the Center for Health and Human Development, a nonprofit that operates community mental health programs in Central America.

Dear County and City Representatives (Mr. Byrd, Mr. Cuevas, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Eberly, Mr. Degner, Mr. Shearer, Mr. Kyger, Mr. Breeden, Mr. Baugh, Mr. Chenault),

I write regarding the possible jail expansion. I appreciate the first meeting held last week by Moseley Architects to reach out to us in the community regarding jail expansion alternatives.

I am greatly concerned about this issue for two reasons. First, the cost is large to the taxpayer. Second, the number of people we have in jail is far too high. Our U.S. rate of incarceration is higher than any other country in the world *, including China, and we must begin to do something about this as a society, starting here, today.

Having seen the research on this issue over the last number of years, it is clear there are alternatives we have not tried that should be considered to reduce prison populations. For example, mental health courts can mandate alternatives to incarceration for those with mental health problems and who have encountered trouble with the law, a group which takes up 25% of jail bed space.

See the one-paragraph abstract of this 2012 study published by the American Psychological Association:

And please watch two minutes of this very powerful video on mental health courts:

Then read the first two paragraphs of this article about Virginia and mental health courts:          

It also appears to me that it is a clear conflict of interest to having a jail architectural firm which can benefit from the construction of a building also carry out a search for alternatives from which they will not benefit financially. I know you have already signed a contract, but I would suggest in the future, these issues be separated.

For the present, you might consider hiring JMU/EMU or other researchers to do some work for you on alternatives that are based on pilot and full alternative programs in other places, as a complement to the work being carried out now by Moseley. Moseley also indicated in the meeting that their ability to carry out a full look at alternatives was quite limited in the short timeline they have (December), so having others also helping with this task seems appropriate.
Why pay more attention to alternatives? Because the long-term savings are potentially very significant for the citizens of the county and city, and because humane treatment of people with mental health challenges and their families, as well as other non-violent offenders, is important to how well our society functions and how these people are able to recover from their illnesses and other challenges. Also, the need for non-violent offender wage earners to be present in the home for their families is key to the functioning of our social system.

I am aware that we are spending $1 million a year to send some of our prisoners to the nearby Middle River Jail due to our overcrowding here, but if we take five years to really look at and implement alternatives, as the city of Richmond has begun to do, and if we then could save $20 million in the long run from jail expansion costs, then you have done us citizens a great benefit.

* See this link for information on global incarceration rates:
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