What are some common problems with rural jails in America?
The Scotts Bluff County Adult Detention Center (SCDC), is located in Gering, Nebraska, the county seat of Scotts Bluff county, population 36,084 (“Quick Facts”). In 2007, the current indirect-supervision structure was built with a $15.2 million price tag, boasting eight segregation cells, a 286-bed capacity, and accommodations for minimum, medium, and maximum custody inmates. Through observing statistics regarding this facility, the narrative of oppression described in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow becomes blatantly apparent.
Demographically, SCDC personifies the narrative of racial inequality in prisons Alexander discusses within the book. Whites account for 92.7% of the county population and 62% of the current SCDC prison population, while Latinos form 24.2% of the county population, but a staggering 33% of the prison population (“Quick Facts”; “Scotts Bluff”). Further, Black citizens make up 1.2% of the county population but 1.8% of the prison population (“Quick Facts”; “Scotts Bluff”). This data proves Alexander’s point regarding the rebirth of the caste system through mass incarceration, a system where whites continue to reign supreme.
Upon being booked into the SCDC, the journey towards release immediately begins. After reviewing a list of phone contacts, officials permit three fifteen-minute phone calls that can be used to call family and friends for bail money, or in more dire cases, begin the search for legal representation. When these calls are exhausted, someone on the outside must pay upwards of $0.21 per minute to fund an inmate calling account using the company Inmate Calling Services (ICS) (“Rates”). Recently, families of prisoners filed a class-action lawsuit against the company that operates ICS, claiming the company inflated call prices and lied to local governments about the costs of those calls (“Families of Prisoners”).
Through the Access Corrections Website, a family member can fund an inmate’s commissary account through secure deposits.
And also pay bail if the inmate is out of state. A 7% handling charge is added towards bail fees, while a $50 deposit into a trust for an inmate to use at the cantina charges an $8 handling fee, all charges which disproportionately affect minorities within the county (Access Corrections). Black and Hispanic people are incarcerated at rates of 1.5% and 17% within the county, and have lower average incomes, while their white, higher-income counterparts are incarcerated at a rate of only 0.44% (Opportunity Atlas).
The extra fees spent on phone calls in hopes of finding competent legal defense may be fruitless.
During 2020 budget workshops, Scotts Bluff County Commissioners heard from court officials concerning the shortage of public defenders (Prokop). This shortage resulted in the County Courts allocating 86% of their budget towards appointing private legal counsel to impoverished defendants, a constitutional failure (Prokop). This attests to Alexander’s point that public defenders’ massive workloads often makes it “impossible for them to provide meaningful representation to their clients” (Alexander 107). This lack of legal representation directly affects minorities within Scotts Bluff County, where the average household income rate for Black citizens is $23k, $37k for Hispanics, and $55k for whites (Opportunity Atlas). Combining these income disparities with the shortage of affordable, competent legal representation further justifies Alexander’s point that minorities do not receive the equivalent representation in the legal system as their white counterparts.
According to County Commissioner Mark Masterton, the newly built SCDC facility reached capacity within 3.5 years due to “overwhelming crime in Scotts Bluff County” (Loeks). This is similar to rhetoric Alexander would consider as promoting false narratives through correlating race and crime. In 2019, Nebraska and Iowa tied at 119% for prison populations as a percentage of operational capacities of those prisons, making this revelation no surprise (Spohn). As a solution, an $8 million adult pod addition to SCDC became proposed to become funded through a bond issue. However, due to recent bond issues to improve schools, the proposal became rejected due to lack of voters (Loeks).
As of 2016, estimates believe that fifty cents of every tax dollar become spent within the county’s criminal justice system Making tax payers weary of further funding it (Loeks). Alexander discusses how eliminating judicial discretion and enacting mandatory minimum laws have exacerbated the overcrowding issue. Mandatory minimums keep prisons unreasonably full while simultaneously increasing the amount of tax dollars allocated towards feeding and clothing inmates. Extreme circumstances such as drug addiction and poverty should become accounted for within sentencing. However, minimums eliminate any possibility of judicial discretion for an inmate’s circumstances. Slapping a bandaid on drug addicts by sending them to jail increases recidivism rates, while rehabilitation centers can treat the root causes of addiction, preventing future brushes with the law.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, overcrowding became further exacerbated. On October 17th, 2020, the SCDC announced that three inmates had contracted COVID, and five days later, thirty more cases were reported (Prokop). During this period, masks were required only for staff and visitors, leaving immunocompromised inmates at risk. Nineteen days later, a full-fledged outbreak occurred. According to Sheriff Mark Overman. Around one-hundred of two-hundred inmates tested positive. An estimate he says was within the “ballpark” of the actual number (Prokop). Masks finally became required for all inmates, and officials decreased arrests to limit outside contact (Prokop). Moreover, with no regard for the pandemic within the SCDC. It is improbable that an immunocompromised member would not contract the virus and as a result, face potentially life-threatening symptoms.
The pandemic has inflamed pre-existing dilemmas within prison healthcare systems. Tax dollars become poured into the criminal justice system at the expense of public health. Adversely affecting lower-income populations suffering from mass incarceration and over-policing.
Although small, the Scotts Bluff County Detention Center has played a role in constructing the New Jim Crow in America. In conclusion, the inequitable rates of imprisonment faced by minorities demonstrate the rebirth of the caste system through mass incarceration. Blending low-income defendants with a system facing a shortage of qualified legal counsel. Ensures that underprivileged minorities face harsher sentences than their white counterparts with access to such resources. Furthermore, this is a systemic failure, as miserable working conditions and low pay result in “discouraging good attorneys from participating in the system” (Alexander, 107). Lastly, institutions such as SCDC result from the rebirth of a caste system founded in racism and social control.
Written by Simran Cheema
Access Corrections. www.accesscorrections.com/#/.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. The New Press, 2020.
“Families of Prisoners Sue Nation’s Largest Providers of Inmate Calling Services for Fixing and Lying about Prices.” Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 6 June 2020, www.washlaw.org/families-of-prisoners-sue-nations-largest-providers-of-inmate-calling-services-fo r-fixing-and-lying-about-prices/.
Loeks, Maunette. “Review Leads to ‘temporary’ Changes at Scotts Bluff County Detention Center.” Star Herald, 14 June 2016, starherald.com/news/local/review-leads-to-temporary-changes-at-scotts-bluff-county-detention-center/ Article_dfda5020-3292-11e6-8ccf-334db6ff8efb.html.
Opportunity Atlas. www.opportunityatlas.org/.
Prokop, Danielle. “Courts, Private Attorneys Talk about Low Rates Paid to Defense Attorneys.” Star Herald, 8 Aug. 2020, starherald.com/townnews/law/ courts-private-attorneys-talk-about-low-rates-paid-to-defense-attorneys/Article_11185358-d604-11ea-8ea2-0bcad6b08715.html.
—. “Sheriff Reports Increase in COVID-19 Cases at Detention Center.” Star Herald, 10 Nov. 2020, starherald.com/news/local/sheriff-reports-increase-in-covid-19-cases-at-detention-center/Article_4f7fdf08-9f57-5dfb-a5eb-022c3853487c.html.
“Quick Facts – Gering City, Nebraska.” United States Census Bureau, United States Census, www.census.gov/quickfacts/geringcitynebraska.
“Rates.” ICSolutions, icsonline.icsolutions.com/rates.
“Scotts Bluff County Detention Center.” CountyOffice.org, www.countyoffice.org/ scotts-bluff-county-detention-center-gering-ne-317/.
“Scotts Bluff County – Sheriff’s Office a Look Back in History.” Scotts Bluff County, 1 Jan. 2006, www.scottsbluffcounty.org
Spohn, Ryan. “State Prison Overcrowding and Capacity Data.” University of Nebraska Omaha, 5 May 2020, www.unomaha.edu/college-of-public-affairs-and-community-service/governing/stories/State-prison-overcrowding-and-capacity-data.php.