Smile Politely

Getting to the heart of the issue: The proposal for a $32 million jail

Shasta Knox, a.k.a. “Klevah,” an emcee at the center of a burgeoning hip hop movement in Urbana-Champaign, performed at a public forum about the broken criminal justice system. “It spoke directly to my heart,” she told me afterwards, “to see so many people passionate about something that affected me personally for most of my life.” 

[PHOTO: Klevah performs at Build Programs Not Jails event]

She revealed that when she was young her own mother was incarcerated. The years in prison did nothing to address her mother’s problems. “So much time that is wasted,” she said, “and families can literally be destroyed by this.”

The forum, “Envisioning Future Directions for the Criminal Justice System in Champaign County” was held Thursday, April 30, 2015, at the Urbana Civic Center. More than 100 people were in attendance. It was held by Build Programs Not Jails (BPNJ), a project of Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice. The featured speaker was Carol Ammons, recently-elected State Representative, who was first a champion for this cause as a member of the county board.

An Appendage of Racial Inequality

[PHOTO of Gus Wood, moderator for the forum]

The event was moderated by Gus Wood, who opened with a moment of silence for Freddie Gray and those in engaged in the Baltimore rebellion. These issues were related, he said. “Police Violence, an appendage of racial inequality, is a historical component of this country, like mass incarceration.” He introduced two BPNJ organizers who provided some background.

Dottie Vura-Weis explained the proposal for a $32 million jail expansion project currently before the Champaign County Board. In 2011-2012, Sheriff Dan Walsh put forward an idea to shut the downtown jail (on Main Street in Urbana, across from the county courthouse), and expand the satellite jail in east Urbana. There was an expressed concern for the growing number of people with mental illness in the jail. A group formed, first called “No More Jails,” and later renamed “Build Programs Not Jails,” which for the last three years has been advocating for alternatives to incarceration. They circulated a petition at the Farmer’s Market, addressed the county board, and researched the local jail population.

Another one of the organizers, Evelyn Reynolds, talked about the need for a Racial Justice Task Force to look at why so many African Americans are in the criminal justice system. While they make up only 13% of Champaign County, 50-60% of those in the jail are Black. A committee of local criminal justice experts was assembled that recommended a task force to address racial disparities, but the county board has yet to follow through.

[PHOTO: County Board members (left to right) Astrid Berkson, Gary Maxwell, and Pattsi Petrie.]

There were 5 out of 22 members of the Champaign County Board at the public forum, including Pattsi Petrie (chair), Astrid Berkson (Chair, Justice and Social Services), Gary Maxwell (Chair, Facilities), Giraldo Rosales (Vice-Chair, Facilities), and Sam Shore.

There were also three alder persons from the Urbana city council, Charlie Smyth, Eric Jakobsson, and Aaron Ammons, which earlier this year passed a resolution for the county to pursue alternatives to incarceration.

[Photo Tamika Davis, FirstFollowers]

Tamika Davis, from FirstFollowers, a new re-entry program, told her life story. While serving a ten-year sentence in a federal penitentiary, she had a revelation and turned her life around. It has been seven years since she was released and she has stayed out of the system. After having her four children taken away from her while in prison, she has gotten them back. She now has a job at University of Illinois. She volunteers at FirstFollowers, which assists people who are transitioning from prison to the community with job searches, obtaining an ID, and reconnecting with their families. She also helped to form Ripple, a community-based group providing support to children with incarcerated parents. We need more of these programs, Davis said. “Jails don’t build communities, people do.”

“My most important take away,” said Champaign County Board Chair Pattsi Petrie, “has to do with the personal stories people were willing to share. The audience was most accepting. Along with these stories, continuing to hear from the citizens as to program ideas and how to fund them is most useful for the county board.”

The event offered people what hip hop artist KRS-ONE called “Edutainment”―both education and entertainment. Between speakers there were performances by Klevah, as well as T.R.U.T.H., another prominent emcee in the local hip hop scene who has in the past been featured by Smile Politely.

The Biggest Crime

[PHOTO: Carol Ammons addresses the crowd]

The keynote speaker for the night was State Representative Carol Ammons, who received a warm reception from the audience. “The biggest crime that we’ve experienced in the United States,” Ammons told the crowd, “is really the criminal justice system, and the disparity against people of color, and poor people.” She was against re-opening Tamms prison, what she called a “torturous facility.” She talked about a bill she sponsored that decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. She called for the implementation of restorative justice. “We have to stop putting all of our people in jail,” she said.

During a comment period, several from the audience spoke from personal experience about the pitfalls of the criminal justice system. Nobody from the public came out to say that we needed a new jail to keep us safe.

Carol Spindel, from the ACLU of Champaign County, spoke from the floor. “There’s a movement in Champaign County now to create better facilities for those incarcerated.” This was not the goal of the ACLU, she stated. “Our role is to change the system so that fewer people are incarcerated.”

After the event, I spoke with Diane Zell, a board member for the state chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). Those with a mental illness, she believed, should not be in jail. “I’m interested especially in changing our criminal justice system to keep out people, whose main crime is they have mental illness, out of jail.” She wanted to see a permanent home for a community resource center, where police can drop off those who are mentally ill to receive treatment from medical professionals.

Lastly, I talked to 23-year-old local artist Langston Allston, whose murals can be seen around town at Pizza M, Mike&Molly’s, and, most recently, on the side of SP publisher Seth Fein’s house. Langston said as a young person it was frustrating to see change happening so slowly. “It’s absolutely urgent,” he told me, “that we change this shit immediately.”

Co-sponsors of the event included Champaign County ACLU, Champaign County NAACP, FirstFollowers Re-entry Program, and Peace and Service Committee of the Friends.

FirstFollowers has open hours Tuesdays and Fridays, 1-5 p.m., at Bethel A.M.E., Fourth and Park in Champaign. It offers free services for those formerly incarcerated and their families.

If you would like to get involved, the next meeting of Build Programs Not Jails is Thursday, May 14th, 6:30 p.m. at the IMC (202 S. Broadway, old Urbana post office).

A streaming of the forum can be watched here

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