It has been one bad headline after another this summer for the people who run jails and prisons.
Guards are overworked at Kansas’ El Dorado Correctional Facility, contributing to violence there. The prison in Lansing, Kan., is understaffed. In St. Louis, temperatures rose above 100 degrees at the medium-security workhouse.
And the crisis at the Jackson County jail is clear. Just this week, authorities closed the jail to visitors because of staffing concerns.
The news isn’t likely to be good.
Strangely, the public doesn’t seem to care. Sure, things may be getting a little rough on the other side of the prison doors. Hey, it’s a jail. Things happen.
Policymakers are in no hurry to fix things, either. They nod solemnly at each new outrage and promise to find an answer — maybe next week or next month. Maybe next year. Whatever.
It’s mind-numbing and dangerous. And expensive. And immoral.
There are purely practical reasons jails must be fixed. First, people work there. Guards and supervisors deserve a fundamentally safe work environment, even in an inherently dangerous place.
Otherwise, no one will work there.
In a tight job market, paying a guard $40,000 or $45,000 simply isn’t enough. Cities and states will have to pay more to attract quality applicants.
Lansing had 116 staff vacancies this week, roughly 17 percent below the full-staff threshold. Guards at El Dorado are working mandatory 12-hour shifts. The Jackson County jail is short-staffed.
The only way to get more workers is to pay more money.
But the spending can’t stop there.
Asking inmates to live in filth is dangerous to them and to everyone else. It’s foolish to think unsanitary conditions can continue until there’s a major jail disturbance. Making repairs after an incident will be significantly more expensive.
Still not convinced? Consider, then, the immorality of overcrowded, substandard jails and prisons.
No one feels sorry for prisoners. Criminals deserve the punishment they get. Some discomfort is part of the deal.
But the punishment is supposed to be the loss of freedom. Once the state takes freedom away, it has a moral responsibility to meet minimum standards of care and decency.
We don’t use dungeons anymore or the stocks.
“Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons,” Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in 2011.
“A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance,” he said, “is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”
That’s it, really. Many liberals and conservatives are pushing for sentencing reforms, knowing the present system is inefficient, unsafe and uncivilized.
The stories this summer are an important warning for all of us and require our attention.
Our jails and prisons need fixing, fast.