We Don't Need a Bigger Jail

We don't need a bigger jail.

Our region is putting way more people in local jails as the national average, and we're doing it by criminalizing mental illness and substance abuse. For the entire U.S., the incarceration rate in local jails is 2.26 people per 1,000 residents. Of the five jurisdictions that own Middle River, the incarceration rate ranges from 2.99 in Harrisonburg to 6.74 in Staunton (per 1,000 residents).

Many of the inmates at Middle River have not yet gone to trial or are locked up for violating probation. As of March 3, one fourth of the 851 inmates had not yet been convicted of their charges (source: information obtained by FOIA).

Additionally, Middle River repeatedly locks up the same people at a shocking rate. In 2017, the Staunton News Leader found that 70% of the inmates there on a given day had been there before. That 70% recidivism rate is three times larger than the state's average of 23%. Many of those who returned to Middle River were arrested on technical probation violations, including missing an appointment with their probation officer or a positive drug screen.

We're criminalizing mental illness … 

People with mental illnesses are disproportionately incarcerated compared to the general population. In 2019, over a third of people detained at Middle River had a serious mental illness, according to Blue Ridge Court Services.

… in the midst of a drug crisis.

The top four charges faced by Middle River inmates are felony probation violation, possession of drugs, failure to appear in court, and possession of drugs with intent to sell or distribute. Moseley Architects, the company hired by Middle River to both conduct a needs assessment and plan the expansion itself, found that drug offenses were the number one reason for all arrests in the region (source: Moseley Planning Study).

A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that jail stays make people 40 times more vulnerable to overdose upon release.

We have not exhausted opportunities to reduce our jail population.

While we paid Moseley to conduct a needs assessment that justified them in drawing up expansion plans, we haven’t conducted any studies on ways we could reduce the number of people we incarcerate.

Other cities around the country have worked with national technical advisors through the Safety and Justice Challenge, an initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that rethinks justice systems and implements data-driven strategies to safely reduce jail populations. After just the first three years, the average daily jail population in these cities decreased by 18%.

We're losing money and space to the state.

At any given time in the last two years, between 200 and 370 inmates being held at Middle River were "state responsible," meaning they were waiting to be moved to a Virginia Department of Corrections prison or other facility. The DOC only reimburses the jail for a fraction of the cost of housing each state responsible inmate – meaning that local taxpayers foot the bill to have hundreds of extra people adding to our overcrowding problem.

People of color are disproportionately incarcerated at Middle River.

One of the worst hallmarks of mass incarceration is the extremely high rates of incarceration of people of color. Sadly, this is true for our area, too. As of January 24, 22% of the jail's inmates are Black (source: information obtained by FOIA). But the combined population of Staunton, Augusta, Waynesboro, Harrisonburg, and Rockingham is only 6% Black (source: census data).

Our tax dollars would be better spent on diversion, treatment, and community development programs.

In addition to improvements to our criminal justice system, we need to invest more in community services that help people keep their lives on a positive track, such as expanded mental health and addiction services, housing, transportation, job training and support, assurance of adequate food, anger management, parenting support, expanded case management, and restorative justice programs in our schools.  These programs are more effective and less expensive than a massive jail expansion.

The Middle River jail authority board’s latest proposal would cost $39.5 million up front. But since the authority board would have to go into debt to pay that sticker price, the five jurisdictions would end up paying as much as $70 million over the life of the loan (source: Davenport presentation at the MRRJ authority board meeting on Feb 2, 2021). And that doesn't include the increased annual costs required to operate a larger jail.


Email [email protected] for more information, or to receive a copy of any of the documents obtained by FOIA.

View pdf flyer signed by 27 organizations here.  Ver documento en espanol aqui.