Jails are the point of entry into the criminal justice system; they are correctional facilities operated by local authorities that confine people before or after conviction. Jail is also where arrested persons are booked and held pending court appearance if they cannot arrange bail. Jail is also generally the local detention facility for persons serving misdemeanor sentences, which in most states cannot exceed one year. Jail differs from prison in three important ways. Prisons are operated by state or federal governments, house only convicted offenders, and house offenders for more than one year. Jails are operated by city or county governments, house both offenders awaiting trial and convicted offenders, and generally house offenders sentenced to less than one year.
Jails also serve a variety of other purposes, including, but not limited to, detaining juveniles until their custody is transferred to juvenile authorities, detaining mentally ill persons until they are moved to appropriate mental health facilities, providing protective custody, and holding witnesses for court.
Most estimates suggest that there are approximately 3,365 jails in the United States, housing more than seven hundred thousand inmates. Of this number, about 2,700 are operated by county governments. Sheriffs are typically responsible for jail supervision and operations, although in some jurisdictions, a jailer is elected to operate the jail. Six states (Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont) have state-operated jails. There are also more than thirteen thousand lockups (or “drunk tanks”) and other short-term detention facilities. The largest jails are the Los Angeles County jail, the New York City jail, and the Cook County, Illinois, jail. All three jails house an average daily population of ten thousand residents or more. Most jails hold fewer than fifty people (Schmalleger and Smykla 2005).
The term jail is derived from the English word gaol. Gaols were locally administered and operated facilities that originated in England in the twelfth century. Gaols held criminals, but also held a number of people who were not criminals, including beggars, drunkards, vagrants, and orphan children. This trend has continued until the twenty-first century; even today, jails often house alcohol and drug abusers, homeless people, and people with mental illnesses who do not pose enough danger to themselves or others to be housed in a mental health residence facility, but create enough problems that their neighbors complain about their behavior to local authorities. Jails remain the first stop on the “social services highway” for many disadvantaged groups. Many scholars agree with Irwin (1985) who suggests that the purpose of jails is to control society’s undesired members. As Irwin suggests, these groups are often arrested more because they are offensive than because of their criminal behavior.
The first jail in the United States was the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, built in 1776. The jail did not segregate by gender, age, or offense, and quickly became a facility where all kinds of scandalous behaviors took place. The Philadelphia Quakers attempted to reform the jail by making one wing of sixteen cells a penitentiary, or a place where convicted offenders could go to reflect on the error of their ways and reform themselves through penitence. That wing became the forerunner of the first prisons in the United States. By the close of the nineteenth century, most large cities had jails to hold persons awaiting trial and punish convicted felons.
Most people who are admitted to jail stay for a very short time, generally forty-eight hours or less. Whereas most inmates may take a day or two to make bail, many jail inmates serve months (or even years) prior to their court appearances and may also receive a year-long sentence afterwards. About half of those in jail who stay longer than forty-eight hours are being detained prior to trial (pretrial detainees). The average length of stay for pretrial detainees is about two months. The average length of stay for sentenced prisoners is about five months and the average stay for all jail inmates is about three months. Moreover, jails hold increasingly large populations of inmates awaiting transfer to overcrowded state prisons. It has been estimated, for instance, that as many as 10% of all jail inmates are state prisoners awaiting transfer (Harrison and Beck 2005). In addition, many county jails now regularly house state inmates serving brief prison terms, and charge states a fee for doing so, ostensibly to alleviate crowding in state prison systems.
Almost nine in ten people in jail are male and almost all are over eighteen years of age. Three in five jail inmates are not convicted for their alleged offense. About equal proportions (two in five) of jail inmates are white, non-Hispanic or black, non-Hispanic, while about one in five jail residents are Hispanic. About equal proportions of people are in jail for violent, property, drug, and public order offenses (Harrison and Beck 2005). Most persons who are arrested, booked, and held in jail are not charged with serious crimes. Most are charged with petty crimes or with behavior that is noncriminal.
Jails in the United States were originally constructed using a linear design. In these eighteenth-century, first-generation jails, inmates lived in cells stacked horizontally down long corridors extending from a central “hub” area. This design made supervision both sporadic and difficult. Second-generation jails originated in the 1960s. These jails were designed so that staff was stationed in a secure control booth (typically circular with windows on all sides) in the middle of the cell house. Although this design increased surveillance capabilities, it did little to increase office/staff interaction. Direct supervision jails emerged in the 1970s to alleviate this problem. In direct supervision jails, inmates are housed in a pod that contains sleeping areas, necessary hygiene features, and sufficient tables and seats so that inmates can have a place to sit outside their sleeping area. Staff is stationed in the pod with inmates. This design encourages staff to interact with the inmates and allows them more direct control over the activities of the pod residents (Schmalleger and Smykla 2005).