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Jails and higher education
By Ken Kerle, Managing Editor, American Jails magazine
Published: 09/29/2008

0922diploma When I began with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department in Hagerstown, Maryland, the trend of hiring recruits with high school diplomas had begun in earnest.

This was in the mid-1970s, and the lawsuit avalanche had clobbered American corrections. I eventually concluded that without the instigation and threat of lawsuits, followed by court interference, jails would still be mired in the sea of neglect, which had been their history in the United States in the last 200-plus years.

The culprits, in my opinion, were and still are public ignorance about jails and the citizens’ lack of understanding of the jail’s potential beyond locking up people for a finite period of time. Until the public becomes better educated, jail progress will be slow.

For years, academic texts in criminal justice programs gave jails only the briefest of space. In American Jails magazine I published reviews of jail chapters I had read in corrections textbooks. I am happy to admit that jail treatment in many corrections textbooks improved over time, but students still get short changed in schools where jail courses are not taught.

When my first book on jails (American Jails: Looking to the Future, 1998, Butterworth/Heinemann) was published, I discovered fewer than 10 schools that offered a course on jails. Five years later, after the publication of my second jail book ( Exploring Jail Operations, 2003, American Jail Association) the numbers hadn’t changed.

The American jail system of 3,163 jails (number cited in Who’s Who in Jail Management, 5th Edition, American Jail Association) processes more than 25 million people a year, but most criminal justice students in the 1,300 colleges, community colleges, and universities still have had minimum exposure to local jails upon graduation. Since 1979, I’ve been attending the annual criminal justice conferences of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). I recall the ACJS conference in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1997, when I organized a panel of Kentucky jailers - the only state in the union with elected jailers.

When the panel convened, there was an audience of one - me. Last year at the 2007 ACJS conference in Seattle, I convened a panel of five bright female jail administrators who managed jails on the I-5 corridor from Portland, Oregon to the Canadian border. They were asked to talk about their careers and how they got to be jail administrators. I and one other professor were the only people in attendance.

A former jail administrator turned academic and I discussed the reasons behind this apparent lack of academic interest. Academics, first and foremost, in certain respects exhibit similar character traits of everybody else.

They breathe, eat, and sleep and are motivated by self-interest! The big challenge is how to persuade them to give jails a high priority when they consider corrections as a classroom subject. By priority, I mean professors should insist that there be a yearly course on jails in the 1,300 schools where they teach.

This is not likely to happen until jail leadership is persuaded to take action. This past May, I was granted my request to address the Board of Directors of the American Jail Association at the AJA annual training conference in Sacramento, California.

I suggested the jail leaders make appointments with criminal justice faculty and make their case. Jail research, jail internships for students, and an opportunity to offer a jail course would be the basis for a strong partnership agenda between the jails and higher education, and it is incumbent upon the jail managers of the nation to lead the way. Criminal justice academics are unlikely to come to the jail door and ask, “How can we help?”

One of my goals is to get a jail course established in at least one school in each of the 50 states. I favor the Washburn University (Topeka, Kansas) jail course, which is co-taught on two weekends (Friday for four hours, Saturday for 8 hours, and Sunday for 8 hours).

Students are not permitted to enroll if they refuse to visit jails. So far, this model has been used at Washburn University, Western Nebraska Community College, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida.

I co-taught the jail course in all of the above schools and am working to persuade more academics to accept the challenge of teaching or co-teaching such a course.

One jail course that will be offered this fall is at the Franklin County Jail in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. It will be co-taught by the criminal justice chairperson of Shippensburg University and the jail administrator of Franklin County. This will be a weekly course and it will be taught in the jail – an aspect that other programs should consider if space is available.


Ken Kerle is the managing editor for the American Jail Association’s magazine, American Jails. His passion for exploring and understanding jails stemmed from an invitation from his community college faculty chair in 1970 to teach in a prison.

In 1978, he began studying jails throughout the United States. After that, he spent eight summers traveling to other countries and examining their prisons.

He reviewed 2,600 jails for a jail survey for the National Sheriffs' Association, which was published in 1982 as The State of Our Nation's Jails He then conducted audits to help measure jail policies and procedures against national guidelines and standards set by the National Sheriffs' Association and the Commission on Accreditation of the American Correctional Association. The reports based on these audits provided guidelines on numerous issues including, staffing, budgets, medical and food services, and security, fire and riot plans.

He has written two books about jails, Exploring Jail Operations and American Jails: Looking to the Future.


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