What Is Jail?

The history of jails in English-speaking countries, including the United States, can be traced back to 12th-century England during the reign of King Henry II, who ordered the construction of jails and placed them under the control of the crown’s local government representative, the county sheriff. Their primary purpose was to detain people awaiting trial and those convicted but awaiting punishment. The earliest reference to U.S. jails is to the construction of a “people pen” in 1632 in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Mirroring the brutal British penal codes and practices of the day, the dominant form of criminal punishment in Colonial America was corporal—with serious crimes punishable by death, physical mutilation, branding, or whipping, and lesser offenses by public ridicule and humiliation through the use of the stocks, the pillory, the public cage, or the ducking stool. But with the conversion of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail into the country’s first penitentiary in 1790—as part of penal reform championed by the Quakers—incarceration as punishment soon became the default response for serious lawbreaking and with it the modern prison system was born.

Today jails are, with few exceptions, municipal or county-level confinement facilities that are administered by local law enforcement agencies or departments of correction. Like their historical antecedents, they are used to detain people awaiting trial who are deemed a flight risk or a danger to public safety. But many also house a range of other people caught up in the criminal system as described below. Jails range in size from small “lockups” that hold no more than a handful of people to networks of facilities, such as the eight jails in Los Angeles County that house approximately 20,000 inmates. Their costs are mainly paid for by a municipality or county, with reimbursements sometimes coming from the state or federal governments.

Unlike state prisons, which almost exclusively hold people serving state sentences, jail populations are heterogeneous, making them particularly challenging to manage.

Jails may house the following people:

  • Pretrial detainees, held from the time they are arrested until they post bail, are released on their own recognizance or to some form of pretrial community supervision—or until the cases against them are settled by trial or plea.
  • Locally sentenced inmates convicted of minor crimes, serve short custodial sentences, typically a year or less, but longer in some states.
  • State-sentenced inmates convicted of more serious crimes may be in jail awaiting transfer to a state prison or are serving their sentence in a local facility due to prison overcrowding. Local jurisdictions are paid to house these overflow inmates. That trend is most significant in California, where the state department of correction is under court order to reduce crowding in prisons.
  • Apprehended probation violators may either be awaiting a hearing on an alleged violation of the terms of their supervision in the community or serving the remainder of their sentence in local confinement.
  • Apprehended parole violators are often in jail awaiting a hearing on an alleged violation or a transfer back to state prison.
  • Pretrial federal detainees may be in jail awaiting trial on federal charges in jurisdictions where no federal detention beds are available. Local jurisdictions are paid to house these inmates.
  • Apprehended pretrial or sentenced inmates from other jurisdictions may be awaiting transfer or be housed at the jail due to unavailability of beds in another state or local jurisdiction.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are sometimes held at the request of the U.S. government pending deportation or adjudication of immigration violations. Local jurisdictions are paid to house these inmates.

This is excerpted from Vera’s 2015 report Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America.

Incarceration’s Impact on Kids and Families


s the overuse of jail becomes more common—although the majority of people are held there pretrial and presumed innocent—its growing impact extends to the children, families, and communities outside its bars, people who must also manage the financial, economic, and emotional effects. For example, more than 1.1 million men and 120,000 women in U.S. jails and prisons have children under the age of 17 and 2.7 million children nationwide have one or both parents behind bars, according to a 2010 Pew Charitable Trust report.

Studies show that the growth in incarceration of men with children contributes to higher rates of homelessness among black children in particular by thinning family finances and placing additional strains on mothers. When a mother is incarcerated, her children often end up in foster care, separated from their family. Furthermore, while a stay in jail may cause a person to lose wages or work, the stigma of an arrest record—even without a conviction or charge—continues after release, with a negative effect on his or her pursuit of employment. These issues are further exacerbated by policies that ban people with certain convictions from receiving cash welfare and food stamps, and broader policies that limit their access to subsidized housing.

Such instabilities can take an emotional toll on children, especially if their parent is going in and out of jail. The cycles of jail time create uncertainty for children regarding how long their parent will be gone and when their parent will return, potentially causing more stress than if the parent went away to serve a long-term prison sentence, according to a report by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.6. 2.7 Million children

The center also reports that, to cope, children may act out in school—becoming aggressive or losing focus—or simply stop attending. These early behaviors may lead to more serious misbehavior or further mental and physical health problems in their adult years. Because higher rates of incarceration tend to occur among residents of neighborhoods already ravaged by poverty and heightened police presence, the effect on children’s education and income as they grow into adulthood creates a cycle of lagging opportunities and resources for entire communities.

However, there is growing recognition of and effort toward diminishing this problem—Sesame Street’s Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration initiative is a prime example. With increased opportunities for children to maintain relationships with an incarcerated parent and through better support for these parents—and other types of caregivers in the community—children and their families can be better protected and tap into their own resiliency against the effects of incarceration.

The Burden of Mental Illness Behind Bars

A lthough people in correctional facilities are mostly excluded from national health surveys, an extensive literature review reveals that this population has dramatically higher rates of disease—especially mental illness and substance use disorders—than the general population, and that correctional facilities too often serve as ill-equipped treatment providers of last resort for medically underserved and marginalized people.

Mental Illness

For nearly a century, state psychiatric hospitals were the primary institutions for treating people with mental health problems. These state asylums were established as the result of a 19th-century national crusade to decrease the extent that people with mental illness were being housed and abused in jails and poorhouses. Unfortunately, these institutions created additional problems, often warehousing patients in deplorable living conditions against their will. In the late 1950s, states began closing their asylums in large numbers with the promise that they would be replaced with a robust network of behavioral health care centers where people could receive the services they needed, while continuing to live in the community—a movement known as deinstitutionalization.

Deinstitutionalization was the result of advances in psychotropic medication, stronger due-process protections against civil commitment, the growing influence of community psychiatry, and the enactment of Medicaid in 1965. The newly created community centers were envisioned to offer a range of services: inpatient, outpatient, emergency, partial hospitalization, and consultation and education on mental health.

The promise of the community mental health movement fell short of its ambitions due to underfunding at the federal and state levels, preventing many people from accessing the services they needed. Dramatic cuts to a variety of social safety-net programs in the 1980s—which led to increases in homelessness and the number of people with untreated mental illness on the street—coincided with massive government spending on the War on Drugs and prison construction.

These changes contributed to a disproportionate number of underserved people with mental health problems becoming entangled in the criminal justice system and correctional facilities becoming their default treatment providers. Today, about 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder, compared to 3.2 and 4.9 percent, respectively, in the general population. While estimates vary, the prevalence of serious mental illnesses is at least two to four times higher among state prisoners than in community populations.

Substance Use Disorders

The punitive sentencing laws and aggressive policing practices that emerged from the national War on Drugs were perhaps the single greatest factor responsible for surging prison populations. Starting in the early 1970s and accelerating over the following decades, a series of new state and federal policies led to unprecedented numbers of people being sent to prison to serve long custodial sentences for drug offenses. The concentration of drug arrests in urban communities of color is a primary driver of pervasive racial disparities in the criminal justice system. African Americans are significantly more likely to be arrested, 13 times more likely than whites to go to prison for a drug conviction, and represent 62 percent of people imprisoned for a drug conviction, despite negligible differences in reported drug use. The increase in incarceration following arrest on drug charges accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal prison population and one-half of the increase in the state prison populations from 1985 to 2000.

Today, nearly 68 percent of people in jail overall and more than 50 percent of those in state prisons have a diagnosable substance use disorder, compared to 9 percent of the general population. Moreover, most people who have a serious mental illness also have a co-occurring substance-use diagnosis. For instance, in jails an estimated 72 percent of people with a serious mental illness also have a substance use disorder.

Despite this high need, less than 15 percent of people who are incarcerated receive appropriate treatment. For instance, although a significant body of research shows that pharmacological treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine effectively treat opioid addictions, most correctional facilities choose not to offer them, subjecting people with chronic addictions to higher risk of withdrawal while in custody and of overdose when released to the community.

from Vera’s 2014 report On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration, pages 5-10.

For a discussion of how law enforcement can help ensure that the people they encounter with mental illness and substance use disorders get treatment, rather than arrested, see Vera’s 2015 report First Do No Harm: Advancing Public Health in Policing Practices.