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New Jail Isn't Answer

Nicholas Johnson

The Daily Iowan

January 25, 2007

[Note: This material is copyright by The Daily Iowan, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial commentary and educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Daily Iowan.]

The Daily Iowan editorializes “it is necessary to provide adequate and appropriate facilities to handle inmates” in the Johnson County Jail. (“Talk of New Jail Should be More Than Just Words,” Jan. 22.) The editorial is right. Prisoners “are still people, and still entitled to decent care.” That’s not only a no-brainer, it’s the law.

But it’s not the issue.

Some cities’ officials look at crowded freeways and say, “We need more lanes.” They’re right that traffic jams are an economic and personal burden. But wider roads are soon equally congested.

Other cities’ officials look at crowded freeways and say, “Let’s substitute better public transportation and bike paths.” That’s sometimes a more effective strategy.

Similarly, some see crowded jails and want to build more and bigger ones. Others ask, “Why are these people in jail?”

Prisons have become our public housing program, holding one of the largest prison populations in the world.

Who are they? A goodly number are mentally ill, deprived of the mental hospital care formerly provided. Others are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Many are non-violent offenders found with small amounts of marijuana. Some are just awaiting trial. Community service or tracking ankle bracelets could be alternatives for still more.

Have we applied basic systems analysis, and “thinking outside the cell” to “crowded jails”? Maybe we have. If not, $25 million jails may be the equivalent of eight-lane freeways when bike paths would do.
Nicholas Johnson
UI College of Law