DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're about to learn more about something known as remote jailing. It's a common practice in the U.S. County jails will send their inmates far away to serve short-term sentences. This can save local governments a lot of money, but it can create a lot of problems, as Northwest Public Radio's Rowan Moore Gerety reports.
ROWAN MOORE GERETY, BYLINE: On weekdays, the visitation room at the Yakima County Jail in central Washington 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.
PRESTON BIGHEAD: It's two-and-a-half hours for my girlfriend to come visit, five hours round-trip.
GERETY: Bighead was arrested near the home he shares with Leota Berry in Tacoma. That's about 150 miles away, across a big mountain range.
LEOTA BERRY: I'm not the most comfortable driver, even around town.
GERETY: Even if she were a more confident driver, Berry says she'd have to take a full day off work to come to Yakima just for a 30-minute visit. And that half-hour 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.
BERRY: I mean, if I could've just seen him to tell him about, you know, when we lost our loved one, that - it wouldn't have been so cold and helpless feeling as it was over the phone.
GERETY: 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 anywhere from $45 to $125 a day. The other reason is to ease overcrowding. But criminologist Mark Berg says these apparent upsides may be misleading.
MARK BERG: I do not think it's a wise policy to build a greater distance between the inmate and their family because these distances, I think, can translate into higher recidivism rates.
GERETY: Berg co-authored a 2011 study, which found that inmates with strong family support were less likely to commit new crimes after release.
BERG: Families essentially served as a bridge between a period of incarceration and the community.
GERETY: 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.
MIKE LEITA: I would say this is a lot like farming.
GERETY: Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita.
LEITA: 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.
GERETY: 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.
LEITA: And it worked.
GERETY: Then, the county poured nearly $30 million into a new jail for out-of-county inmates.
LEITA: But the decision was made to go big time.
GERETY: 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 that bowling alley-turned-jail. Soon, it's set to reopen as a 911 call center. For NPR News, I'm Rowan Moore Gerety in Yakima.
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