by Heather Ware

If arrested, a person should know that they will not be abused, will be treated fairly, and that their basic needs will be met. County jails in Texas are some of the largest in the country, and get the most complaints about conditions and wrongful convictions.

County jails are different from state and national prisons. The prisoners they hold are mostly waiting for trial or convicted of misdemeanors. Jails are not run by the state nor overseen by the State Department of Criminal Justice, but instead by the county and Sheriff.

Lew Sterrett Justice Center, the Dallas County jail, has failed federal inspections eight times between 2003 and 2011. It was sued by the US government because of its deplorable health and sanitary conditions, but has recently been cleaning up its act. The 2011 federal inspection stated that its fire-safety and medical care were not up to snuff, but the jail passed anyway.

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According to the Innocence Project, a group that works to free the wrongfully convicted, Dallas County has had over 30 people freed due to DNA testing. This kind of treatment is not acceptable. Some claim that jails are meant to be scary, dangerous, and uncomfortable in order to deter further crime. It was this kind of thinking that prompted Joe Arpaio, the Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, to set up his famous tent jail. His argument is that bad treatment is simply punishment for crimes done.

But this reasoning is flawed, especially when speaking of county jails. These are mainly used as pre-trial holding facilities. The prisoners have not been proven to have committed any crime and are therefore innocent until proven guilty. If they are indeed innocent, then attempts to make the experience worse will be entirely superfluous. Others held at these facilities have indeed been convicted, but of misdemeanors and non-violent crimes.

The Supreme Court has said that while jails and prisons don’t have to be “comfortable,” they do need to be “humane.” There are also international agreements regarding the rights of prisoners, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Covenant requires that “the focus of prisons should be reform and rehabilitation, not punishment.” The US considers itself a leader on the international stage, yet we lag behind in the care and humane treatment of our prisoners.

Everyone who considers themselves a citizen of the world, and occupies a small corner of it, must become informed about their local criminal justice system and, of course, must become informed about and participate in the elections of the Sheriff and local politicians. Who knows? Maybe someday you won’t make the best decisions, or maybe you’ll just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and get taken into the local county jail. If you do, you can know that you did all you could to make it a safe and secure place to be.

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