Achieving Racial Equity and Improving Culture in Jails Using a Community-Engaged Quality Improvement Process

By: Carrie Pettus

May 16, 2024

Jails are racialized organizations. Many jails have racialized subcultures, where residents of non-White racial backgrounds face increased segregation, tensions, or violence; limited employment opportunities; and social stigma. Racial disparities in incarceration exacerbate vulnerability to violence, sexual abuse, solitary confinement, and inadequate healthcare. Carceral environments such as jail often manifest racial divisions, with staff frequently exhibiting racial antagonisms, either individually or collectively.

As part of its efforts to lower jail populations across America and address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge recently funded a project examining racial disparities within a county jail. The resulting report presents an approach that can build greater racial equity within jail settings.

The premise of the report is that the lack of racial equity in jails can profoundly impact the conditions of confinement for both residents and staff. The following key themes emerged in the research:

  • Staff and incarcerated persons identified that they felt a pervasive sense of unfairness within the organization, and people in minoritized groups felt that there was little accountability for staff racist behavior or misconduct of any kind.
  • Staff and incarcerated persons felt that racism is implicitly endorsed and perpetuated. Conversely, some White staff and residents downplayed or overlooked the existence of racism, and attributed any hardships experienced in the jail environment to factors other than race.
  • Staff concerns included disparities in promotions and leadership opportunities. Black staff felt that they were often overlooked for promotions. Staff felt that there was a lack of transparency in the process.
  • Resident workgroups described a lack of beneficial programs within the jail. Incarcerated women denoted that the programming was designed for men, and that they did not have equal opportunity to participate in programming.
  • Healthcare, particularly access to mental health services, was a key stressor for all. Many residents indicated that their medical emergencies were not taken seriously or responded to in a timely manner. Staff would like more mental health counseling made available, as well as a cultural emphasis on staff and incarcerated person wellness.
  • Inequities are intersectional. For example, women felt that their hygiene needs were not addressed. Women lacked access to soap, menstrual supplies, and undergarments. The concerns were heightened for Black women. Individuals who did not speak English as their primary language or had other physical or mental disabilities felt that their needs were not met or even considered.

Through workgroups and surveys involving staff and residents, we identified and prioritized 30 interventions that can help jail become more equitable. The following key themes emerged:

  • It is essential to balance power in racial equity work, particularly in the context of jails where conditions of confinement are intertwined with power dynamics.
  • Both staff and residents want more transparency and accountability. They felt there was a need to develop or appoint an external group to review the jail operations and manage staff complaints and internal affairs investigations.
  • Staff requested a clear career pipeline from the jail’s frontline to leadership to allow for job expectations to be more transparent. They requested that all employees receive the support, training, and development needed to be promoted to higher jobs.
  • Both staff and residents requested substantial reforms to healthcare. Residents suggested implementing a protocol to respond to sick calls and medical emergencies. Staff felt that there was a stigma against requesting assistance, particularly mental health care, and suggested more confidential programming and supports.

The issues raised during this project require care and attention that are often not fully available to those who manage a chaotic environment such as a jail. Staff and residents raised concerns about the full adoption and sustainability of this effort. Continued support is needed in the implementation of the recommendations, and this underscores the broader implications for the sustainability of this transformative work and its potential for lasting systemic change.