Jails are seeing overcrowding, violence and abuse proliferate as staffing shortages make problems worse, report The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. In California, lawyers accused staff at the L.A. County jail of chaining mentally ill detainees to chairs for days at a time. In West Virginia, people in the Southern Regional Jail sued the state because they found bodily fluids in their food. In Missouri, detainees in the St. Louis jail staged multiple uprisings last year, and a Texas guard at Houston's overcrowded Harris County Jail has said she and her coworkers have started carrying knives because they are afraid they will not have backup if violence ensues. "It's hard to believe, but it seems jails are even more wretched than usual these last few months," said David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. Several lockups denied claims about deteriorating conditions, but New York City's Rikers Island jail complex acknowledged problems such as infrastructure issues, detainee deaths and high staff attrition.
More than a dozen employees, detainees and experts spoke with The Marshall Project and AP highlighting two problems: too many people incarcerated, and not enough guards. Overcrowding and understaffing have plagued jails for years, even before the pandemic. Yet, in the months after COVID-19 hit, the number of people in local lockups plummeted. Nationally, the number of people in jail decreased by about 25 percent by the summer of 2020, according the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. By the summer of 2022, jails became so overcrowded that detainees were forced to sleep on floors, in underground tunnels or in common areas without toilets. “Everyone is on edge because it is crowded,” one man detained in Los Angeles wrote in a declaration in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. “The place smells of urine and excrement because some toilets don’t work, and people who are chained to chairs sometimes pee on the floor because the deputies won’t unchain them.” Many state prisons and local lockups were fully staffed, yet so many of them had seen a rise in officer vacancies. According to The City, a non-profit New York news source, more than 1,000 Rikers Island guards were calling out sick every day due to a policy allowing unlimited sick leave. Having fewer jail employees can also make life worse for detainees because there are fewer workers to let them out of their cells, take them to court, teach in programs or tend to basic needs.