Community Perspective: A bigger jail will not solve the problem

A contributed perspectives piece with multiple authors listed below

The Middle River Regional Jail is one of the most expensive publicly funded facilities ever built in our region. Now, citing overcrowding, jail authorities want our communities to commit to one of three expensive expansion options.  

These proposals should be tabled while we answer some basic questions. What problem or problems are we trying to solve? Who is in the jail and why? Will an expanded facility solve the real problems? 

The five jurisdictions that use Middle River — Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, Rockingham County and Augusta County — have a combined population of 257,000. Middle River and the Rockingham/Harrisonburg Regional Jail provide 1,227 jail beds. If they are full, we are incarcerating 477 people per 100,000 residents. The national average incarceration rate is 226 people per 100,000 residents for local jails. How is this justified when Virginia has among the lowest crime rates in the country and Harrisonburg, as one regional example, has among the lowest crime rates in Virginia? 

In a region where 6% of the population is Black, 22% of the residents at Middle River are Black. Michelle Alexander’s research on the contemporary prison system concluded that nationwide our jails and prisons and the systems that feed them should be considered the new Jim Crow. We are clearly a part of that system. We need to examine our local system thoroughly and honestly before we fund any jail expansion.  

An estimated 80% of inmates at Middle River have some degree of substance abuse or mental health disorder. The MRRJ authority board says that part of the money for expansion will go towards treating this group. But research shows that people with substance use disorders and mental illness are much better served by receiving treatment outside of a jail setting. The American Psychological Association states that imprisonment can exacerbate or even create mental health conditions. The recent history of inmates dying by suicide, allegations of improper medical treatment leading to inmates’ deaths, and an egregious failure to contain the spread of covid-19 demonstrate that Middle River is not the best place for treatment. 

Rather than expand the facility, we urge local leaders to fund a racial equity study followed by development of a plan to end racial disparities in our court practices and our jails. We also urge officials in the region to implement proven best practices for supporting mental health and substance abuse services that have worked in other small towns and rural areas like ours. With the lowest cost option — $40 million, plus undisclosed continuing operating expenses and debt costs — we can build more effective mental health and substance abuse services and more just alternatives to incarceration.  

Many other communities have said “no” to jail expansion and found effective solutions to reduce incarceration. We can do the same. Please urge the elected leaders in your city or county to vote no for now, and invest in creative problem solving instead. 

Dr. Jayne Seminare Docherty, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University

Dr. Linda Plitt Donaldson, Associate Dean, College of Health and Behavioral Studies at James Madison University

Rev. Costella L. Forney, Pastor of John Wesley United Methodist Church

Art Stoltzfus, Member of Faith in Action

Mr. Robert (Bob) Robinson, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Mary Baldwin University

Rev. Dr. Edward A. Scott, Pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Mary Baldwin University

Dr. Abby Wightman, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Mary Baldwin University

Dr. Beth Easterling, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Mary Baldwin University 

Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown, Professor of History & History Department Chair, Mary Baldwin University

The authors’ views are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of their institutions.

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