Late last year, a team of officials from Champaign County, including Sheriff Dan Walsh, State’s Attorney Julia Rietz and County Board Member Tom Betz attended a workshop in Colorado sponsored by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections (NIC). After completing exercises that required them to construct budgets and design the physical layout for a new jail, the team returned to Champaign-Urbana eager to get on with promoting the construction of a state-of-the-art, $20 million facility in East Urbana.
Initially, their proposal gained considerable traction among members of the County Board, the body that would have to approve the funds. The motivation for the new facility centered on the decrepit state of the downtown jail, which was built in 1980. An NIC report from a May 2011 visit to Urbana declared the facility in a “deplorable” state and recommended its closure in favor of adding on more cells at the county’s “satellite” jail on the eastern edge of the city. The report cited leaks in the roof and walls, the presence of rodents, and a heating and cooling system in disrepair as the major problems warranting closure. Today, some eight months after Walsh, Rietz, Betz, and their Jail Planning Team first presented their proposal to a County Board meeting, the plans have landed on rocky shores. A broad-based campaign from various community members, as well as intensive study of the issue by Board members themselves. has cast serious doubt on the viability of the project.
Members of Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ) and other residents have made dozens of presentations at County Board meetings during public participation sessions. Their input has focused on four issues.
Most crucial has been the question of priorities. Many residents suggested the funds should be spent on preventative measures to keep people out of jail rather than simply providing better accommodation once they are arrested. Carol Ammons, a Board member who also belongs to CUCPJ, has consistently voiced preference for options like increasing resources for mental health and substance abuse, youth job training, and support for those returning from prison. Such programs have faced substantial funding cuts in recent years.
Secondly, studies carried out by CUCPJ verified what has been common knowledge within the local African-American community: the disproportionate incarceration of blacks. Over the last five years, more than half the people booked into the county jail have been Black, despite the fact that African-Americans comprise only 12% of the county’s residents. Aaron Ammons of CUCPJ told a board meeting earlier this year that as an African-American he viewed plans to build a new jail as a move to “lock up more young black men.” African-American Board member Lloyd Carter summed up the whole jail construction idea as an effort “to make money off of human suffering.” Such comments have reinforced the notion that the planning team’s desires to build a jail are part of a national trend toward mass incarceration, a process that legal scholar Michelle Alexander has referred to as “The New Jim Crow.” Racial discrepancies in the local jail reflect the bigger picture: 58% of those in Illinois prisons are African American, while they represent only 15% of the state’s population. At the national level the figures are 39% and 13%. The racial aspect of the local jail was further highlighted at the March 6 Board meeting, when Rietz responded to a proposal to add a black person to the all-white jail planning team by arguing that there was no need for a “token person of color” in order for the group to do its work effectively. The comment provoked such outrage from the audience and other Board members that the chair threatened to use the Sheriff to clear the room if quiet wasn’t restored. (Click here to watch video)
Thirdly, CUCPJ conducted door-to-door surveys in March and April. Respondents were particularly upset at the idea of closing a jail that was built just 32 years ago. A number of homeowners noted that their own houses were built before 1980, but that they didn’t abandon them when minor repairs were required. Many were suspicious that the County Board had purposely not carried out the maintenance in order to make the building of a new facility inevitable.
Lastly, public presentations, as well as survey responses, stressed the need for popular participation in decisions about major construction projects. While Carol Ammons and fellow board member Pattsi Petrie have repeatedly called for public meetings on this issue, the Board has refused to take the debate outside its chambers. Particular opposition to this has come from Betz. He maintains that the people who ran the workshop in Colorado strongly opposed public involvement in such decisions, although the materials the NIC distributed to participants advocated getting residents involved.
Despite the mobilization of a sizeable opposition to the jail construction proposal, the plan is far from defeated. Two processes are still in motion. First, after considerable debate, the County Board agreed to hire a consultant to examine the county’s criminal justice system with a particular focus on the need for new jail construction. In June, four different firms presented their proposals to the Board. A decision regarding which team to hire will be made in September. While a needs assessment may appear an appropriate method to handle the situation, as Pattsi Petrie told the Board, she was “extremely troubled” by the fact that most firms had staffs of “structural engineers and architects” who were pitching for the construction job, “not pitching for a needs assessment.” As Carol Ammons put it, “I wouldn’t expect a builder would say ‘don’t build.’” Should the consultants recommend construction, the Board would be hard-pressed to follow a different course of action. While time frames remain a little murky, it appears the consultants’ report will come to the Board sometime early next year. To further complicate matters, elections for County Board seats will take place in November, so much of the ground covered to date may have to be re-traced for new Board members.
On another front, pressure from the public has led to the creation of a Community Justice Task Force, a group of nine residents from various sectors mandated to investigate alternatives to incarceration. The Task Force, which will be forwarding its report to the Board later this year, is examining existing services, especially in areas such as pre-trial processing, community based mental health programs, and juvenile justice. The Task Force will be forwarding recommendations to the Board as to how the county can reduce the jail population rather than spend millions on new facilities. However, the Task Force has no real decision-making power and relies totally on voluntary labor.
While the Task Force may offer some helpful counter-proposals to jail construction, CUCPJ’s Aaron Ammons cautioned against placing too much faith in such structures: “Ultimately we need to mobilize people to become more aware of what is taking place in our criminal justice system. Our county has far more important priorities than building a new jail. We must find better ways to spend taxpayers’ money than funding the incarceration of young African-Americans.”
The CUCPJ will be holding a public forum on Alternatives to Incarceration on Friday, September 21, 6:00–8:00 p.m at the Urbana City Council Chambers. Speakers will include representatives from the Immigration Forum, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Black Chamber of Commerce. Food will also be offered.
James Kilgore is Research Scholar at the Center for African Studies (UIUC), as well as a member of CUCPJ and Citizens with Conviction, a group that advocates for the rights of formerly incarcerated people. He also serves on the Community Justice Task Force of the Champaign County Board. He writes this article in his personal capacity.
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