Over the past several decades, there has been a quiet but dramatic shift in the geography of incarceration. For decades, the predominant narrative about rural incarceration has been that big cities and the federal government sentence people to small, remote parts of the country. That picture is historically accurate but incomplete.
It is true that state and federal prisons have often been the sole economic opportunity on offer for some rural communities and smaller cities — a kind of snake oil “salvation” in places grappling with the decline of extractive and other industries. But since the late 1990s, Vera Institute of Justice research shows the number of people sent to jail and prison from rural counties and smaller cities across the United States has also been rising with terrifying speed, even as incarceration in the nation’s biggest cities declines.
Reimagining justice and safety in rural communities will rely on sustaining and resourcing a movement to end the jail boom and rebuild resilience in small communities.
This urban-rural divide means that while organizers in big cities are fighting to close jails and shrink the footprint of the justice system, coalitions and campaigns in smaller communities are fighting to stop a jail boom and divert millions of dollars budgeted for new carceral investment into the safety priorities that communities want: housing, harm reduction, transportation and public health.
In rural Texas, for example, the rate at which poor, unconvicted people are locked up before trial has increased
22 percent in the past 10 months, rebounding sharply after an initial decline in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Across the state and nation, many sheriffs and other local elected officials are arguing that new and bigger jails are the unavoidable answer. But even before the rapid spread of COVID-19 behind bars, we saw with painful clarity the frequency with which small-city and rural jails spread suffering and death.
The nonprofit Texas Jail Project has been documenting jail deaths while working to reduce the harm caused in small counties where jails have usurped the role of emergency rooms and public health institutions.
Take the case of a 33-year-old woman who was in her second trimester while incarcerated for a probation violation in Brazoria County Jail in the fall. Instead of providing mandatory OB-GYN care and extra nutrition, the jail held her in solitary confinement. By the time her family received her alarming letters and reached out to advocates and state agencies for help, she had miscarried.
Or consider a 31-year-old man who committed suicide in Washington County Jail in 2019 within three days of being arrested and booked. He was sent to jail despite a long documented history of mental illness and suicide attempts. His death was one of 25 suicides reported in 2019 out of a total of 110 custody deaths in Texas county jails.
Ending the jail boom, dismantling mass incarceration and realizing community safety in smaller cities and rural counties demand the decriminalization of poverty and public health problems — including the abandonment of a money bail system that erodes public safety — and investment in upstream interventions.
In our rural communities, unlike major cities, however, upstream interventions too often do not exist; they need to be rebuilt, whole cloth, from a decimated safety net. At least 180 rural hospitals have closed since 2005, with the numbers accelerating toward an all-time high in 2020, even as the pandemic tore across the country. This lack of basic resources means that when people are in behavioral health crisis behind bars, advocates and volunteers have to fight for their release — then drive hours across the state to connect them to care. And resources and other services in rural America are too often tied to the local criminal legal systems: We need to ensure the only path to care is not through arrest, prosecution or booking into jail.
Reimagining safety and justice in rural communities is also an urgent matter of racial justice. Native American, Latinx and Black communities are overrepresented in rural regions of persistent poverty across the country, reflecting long histories of racism, marginalization and violence.
The U.S. Treasury is poised to send an estimated $8.7 billion to rural counties as part of the American Rescue Plan Act in an effort to enable communities to recover from the public health and economic fallout of the pandemic. For decades, federal investment has helped sustain and expand the infrastructure of punishment and incarceration in rural communities. It is time to shift power and resources out of the rural criminal legal system so investments in safety produce safety for everyone.