On weekdays, the visitation room at Yakima County Jail in central Washington state buzzes with the sounds of 20 simultaneous conversations between inmates and their friends and family.
Preston Bighead is nearing the end of a seven-month sentence for a DUI conviction, but he hasn’t seen his family once.
“It’s two-and-a-half hours for my girlfriend to come visit — five hours round trip,” he says.
It’s not just Bighead who’s facing a more isolated term. County jails across the country are sending their inmates to other jurisdictions to serve short-term sentences — a practice called remote jailing.
Bighead was arrested near the home he shares with Leota Berry in Tacoma, Washington, which is about 150 miles away, across the Cascade mountain range.
And Berry says she’s not the most comfortable driver. Even if she were, she says she’d have to take a full day off work to come to Yakima, just for a 30-minute visit.
And that visit wouldn’t be in person, but through a video system. So she uses the phone instead, which can make it hard to feel connected.
When a good friend died, Berry says she was afraid to break the news.
“I mean if I could have just seen him to tell him about, you know, when we lost our loved one, then it wouldn’t have been so cold and helpless-feeling as it was over the phone,” she says.
Unlike state and federal prisons — reserved for more serious offenses — county and city jails historically hold people awaiting trial or local inmates convicted of minor crimes.
Today, remote jailing is commonly practiced in Washington and Texas, and in pockets nationwide, from Illinois and Wisconsin to California.
There are two reasons why: one is to save money. In Washington state, jail beds cost local governments anywhere from $45 to $125 a day. The other reason is to ease overcrowding.
But Indiana University Bloomington criminologist Mark Berg says these apparent upsides may be misleading.
“I do not think it’s a wise policy to build a greater distance between the inmate and their family,” he says. “Because these distances I think can translate into higher recidivism rates.”
Berg co-authored a 2011 study which found that inmates with strong family support were less likely to commit new crimes after release.
“Families essentially served as a bridge between a period of incarceration and the community,” Berg said.
Not just for moral support, but for housing, childcare and connections to employers — all of which, Berg says, can help people stay out of jail for good.
For jails receiving prisoners, more inmates means more revenue. But that can be problematic, too.
“I would say this is a lot like farming,” Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita says. “When someone finds a crop that is a moneymaker, all the neighbors see what’s happening. They all start wanting to put in the same crops and then all of a sudden the bottom falls out.”
That’s what happened in Yakima in the 1990s. Before Leita was elected, the county covered a budget shortfall by converting an old bowling alley into a jail and renting beds to other jurisdictions.
“And it worked,” Leita says. “But the decision was made to go big time.”
The county poured nearly $30 million into a new jail for out-of-county inmates. As other jails started to do the same thing, the competition multiplied.
Yakima lost contract after contract, and that brand-new 288-bed jail has been empty ever since. In fact, they can’t even fill the bowling alley-turned-jail. Soon, it’s set to reopen as a 911 call center.