LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Millions of Americans will be traveling over the long holiday weekend and Las Vegas is a perennial favorite destination for the season. There is one place in town that no one wants to visit, yet it remains incredibly busy day and night. The Clark County jail.
Every day, on average, 158 people are booked into the Clark County detention center. The number totaled more than 57,000 in 2021. Those people remain in jail for an average of 18 days. More than 400 of the inmates at the jail are awaiting trial for murder, and more than 30 of those have been waiting five years or longer. In decades past, the old county jail was so overcrowded that federal authorities put it under a consent decree. Its replacement facility is carefully managed to keep a vacancy rate of about 30%.
“You can’t fill the jail and have that solve your problems,” said Assistant Sheriff Andrew Walsh with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “It just creates a whole other set of problems.”
“We’ve been in front of that change curve, so to speak, on how to make this community safer without populating the jail and filling the jail with people,” said Assistant Sheriff Walsh.
New arrivals go through a detailed booking process. Fingerprints are taken. Photos of tattoos, often valuable to gang enforcement, are snapped. All felony suspects must provide DNA samples, an incredibly important tool that helped solve dozens of other serious crimes. Male and female inmates are segregated, of course, but they get divvied into many other categories.
“Everyone gets classified based on their criminal history, their charges, their gang affiliation,” said Clark County Detention Center Captain Jonathan Clark. “That way you don’t get someone who’s in on his first defense for domestic violence with a roommate who is a convicted murderer who’s now murdered again.”
Sex offenders are housed in a separate section, as are transgender inmates in part for their own protection. Military veterans, as a group, have common needs and problems so they too have their own section. Getting meals and medical attention to a constantly shifting population is an immense challenge. Many who end up behind bars are homeless, and Captain Clark estimates that 40 percent of the inmates have mental health issues that require medication, making the jail Nevada’s largest mental health facility.
“But there’s a doctor here. There’s a psychologist here. There’s people here that can give them the medication that they need,” Assistant Sheriff Walsh said. “The challenge is, when it’s time for them to leave, they’re back out in your neighborhood and mine, and the idea that they’re just going to be able to continue their care once they leave the facility is a fantasy.”
The jail is not meant to be a place to punish suspects, since most in custody there have not been tried — let alone convicted. Police understand that the jail is sort of a temporary dumping ground for social ills including homelessness and mental health. However, the time spent in jail presents an opportunity for the police to attempt to reduce the crime rate. Multiple programs have been implemented to teach basic life skills when people are released from jail.
“We are corrections officers. Our job is to correct the behavior,” Captain Clark said. “We bring people in from all over the community to help people get a driver’s license. […] All these programs are meant to help these people go back out into society and not come back.”
Astonishingly, some inmates are “frequent flyers.” Some of them have been arrested more than 600 times over the years. Most of those are in jail for vice and prostitution.
Overall, it is a kinder, gentler approach than the old “lock ’em up, throw away the key” mentality. But corrections officers and staff know the jail’s most important function remains the same as ever — to protect the public by keeping the worst of the worst where they belong.
“Unfortunately we still have people that the only thing they know is jail,” Assistant Sheriff Walsh said.