Jacob Kang-Brown | March 31, 2016

The Rise of 1,000 Small Jails

Some jails are notorious. Think New York City’s Rikers Island or the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail. News stories about overcrowding, violence, and deplorable conditions fuel ongoing public debate about the nation’s two largest jail systems and capture the public’s imagination about just what jail looks like. But it turns out urban jails are in decline—there is even a movement to “close the jail” in New York City; Los Angeles is already tearing down its largest jail and building a smaller one—and it is rural America that represents the true picture of U.S. jails today. That’s because growth in the jail population is not driven by the largest counties; it has taken root in a thousand very small ones across the United States.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. The nation’s very small counties once had less than half as many people in jail as New York City and Los Angeles combined. 

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