ACLU | To Fix Escambia County’s Jail, We Have to Fix the System

To Fix Escambia County’s Jail, We Have to Fix the System

Sara Latshaw
North Florida Regional Director, ACLU of Florida

This blog post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Pensacola News-Journal.

Oftentimes, it takes a tragedy to draw our attention to inadequacies and failures that have been long simmering just below the surface. And when the time comes to rebuild after a tragedy, if we lose the opportunity to also fix those long-festering problems, we do ourselves a disservice.

As we near two months since the tragedy at the Escambia County Jail that killed and injured inmates and staff, our community must take stock of our jail’s controversial history and do what we can to change it.

Even before the lethal explosion, the jail was not where it should be. In the past six years, the Escambia County Jail has been cited for appalling levels of violence due to lack of correctional staff and inadequate mental health care services, has been investigated by the Department of Justice, saw improvements and setbacks in conditions, and changed hands from Sheriff David Morgan to Escambia County.

The terrible conditions of the Escambia County Jail must be remedied immediately, but meeting constitutional standards only addresses symptoms of a larger and more-expensive problem: overincarceration.

Each year, our jail houses thousands of people – 70 percent of whom have not been convicted of a crime and could potentially be released without a threat of public safety or avoidance of justice. Also, it unfairly impacts low-income communities and people of color. This costs millions in tax dollars with questionable benefit to public safety.

Fortunately for community leaders, specific policies and procedures will reduce our jail population and improve the troubling inmate-to-guard ratios.

We can encourage the state attorney and courts to ensure that individuals charged with low-level, nonviolent crimes are released on their own recognizance. The impoverished represent a disproportionate number of criminal defendants. Many people have jobs and families to support and are housed before trial only because they cannot afford bail. It is both a waste of money and a detriment to those being unnecessarily incarcerated.

We can better utilize community or electronic monitoring in lieu of jail. For those who pose a flight risk, ankle monitors are a cheap and easy way to keep track of individuals awaiting trial while allowing them to be productive citizens. In Escambia County, defendants are required to pay to take part in the monitoring program. Many cannot afford to do so, thus they remain in jail. The county should waive or pay this fee.

We can also use court notifications. Automated or personal reminders are proven to reduce failure-to-appear rates. It is simple, yet effective.

The criminal justice system is not a solution to every problem a community faces, and harsher penalties and an overreliance on incarceration strain resources and damage lives.

To be sure, the flaws in a criminal justice system didn’t cause the explosion that claimed two lives at the jail – but neither will a rebuilt building or new safety measures mean a “fixed” jail. So, as our community moves past the shock of April 30 and begins to reckon with what comes next for the facility, we have to look beyond repairing a damaged building and fix a broken system.

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One Comment on “ACLU | To Fix Escambia County’s Jail, We Have to Fix the System”

  1. Daniel-Jay D. Mahone Says:

    My case is a perfect example. On April25,2014 I completed a 188 month federal sentence. After being incarcerated since 1999 at the age of 19 years old I was finally released from federal custody. Escambia county placed a detainer on me for a burglary of an unoccupied structure from 1998 in which I broke a school window after we lost our only basketball game of the season. Well on April 25,2014 Escambia county picked me up from federal custody fifteen years later just to hold me in jail just to get it thrown out. Well subsequently I was subjected to the jail explosion and released, about a month later after going to court just to have the prosecutor recommend that the charges be dropped because they were so old and I had spent the last 15 years in Federal prison. My point is, that it is hard enough for a convicted felon to secure employment and make the adjustment to life in society but for the process to be complicated by unwise,
    incompetent, and negligent criminal justice policies and practices. Justice must be fair and accountability must ring true across the board. Escambia county could have dealt with the case years ago while I was still in custody yet they chose to respond to my many letters and motions with responses like “it will be dealt with at the appropriate time.” Now I will be spending the next several years getting medical treatment and being involved in a civil suit for which will most likely come at the expense of the Escambia county taxpayer. So voters I encourage you to do your homework and hold the approriate officials accountable through the election process. In short Escambia county needs a purging of the current elected officials. They have forgotten that they are in a position of service not a position of power. Thank you for your time feel free to contact me at the following;

    (850) 221-1629 cell

    Daniel-Jay Dagante Mahone


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