A Project of

The Human Toll of Jail

Jails exist in nearly every town and city in the United States. Although rarely on the radar of most Americans, jails are the front door to the criminal justice system in a country that holds more people in custody than any other on the planet. Their impact is far-reaching and profound: in the course of a typical year, there are nearly 12 million jail admissions—almost 20 times the number of annual admissions to state and federal prisons—at great cost to individuals, their families and communities, and society at large. The Human Toll of Jail is an essential part of an emerging national conversation about changing this picture.

Presented by the Vera Institute of Justice with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, The Human Toll of Jail is a platform for true stories about and by ordinary people, both those who are or have been caught up in the criminal justice system, and those who work on its front lines. It aims to put a human face to the uses and abuses of jails in the United States, to expose the flesh-and-bone reality. Along with every story featured here, Vera brings information about and links to the research, policy analyses, and best practices that address the larger questions and issues.

Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos
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Inside the Massive Jail That Doubles as Chicago’s Largest Mental Health Facility

Since drastic budget cuts left thousands of Chicagoans without access to reliable mental health care, all too many are getting their only real treatment when they land behind bars.


Jailed for Being Homeless

Legislation to prevent tent cities and homeless encampments is increasingly popular in jurisdictions throughout the country. But what happens when people are jailed and fined for having no place to sleep?


Return to Rikers

After two decades of incarceration, Patrick went back to Rikers Island for the first time in 20 years—to visit his son.


A New Approach to Prosecution

Local prosecutors across the country wield enormous power to make decisions that affect the flow of people in and out of often-overcrowded jails. With that power in mind, the district attorney in one California county wants to upend the way we think about his job responsibilities.

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Judging Without Jail

Many states have made moves to end the fruitless cycle of arrest and incarceration by moving nonviolent defendants out of prosecution and into more productive intervention programs. One New Orleans judge has seen just how effective this approach can be.

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Behind the Scenes of Public Defense

An overburdened legal system means the poorest defendants can get stuck in jail for weeks or even months waiting for their case to be resolved—and are often convinced to cop a plea just to get out. The assistance of a determined defender can go a long way.

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The Jail Without Bars

At one Idaho correctional facility, an innovative approach is built on a commitment to the site’s workers and an investment in the inmates’ success. The result is a jail that looks nothing like the ones you’ve seen on TV.

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Fighting for Face Time

As jails and prisons increasingly replace visits with videoconferencing, the stories of four inmates—and their families on the outside—demonstrate why human contact is so vital.

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A Helping Hand on the Way Home

The extent of incarceration in the United States and the lack of resources in facilities has led thousands of people to volunteer in jails and prisons, playing roles that include education, preparing for reentry, or just being someone to talk to.

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Inmate Turned Advocate

After spending much of her young life bouncing between jail and prison, one New Orleans resident has found new purpose helping provide vital services to people who have been arrested, at a critical early juncture in the prosecution process.