I’ve been involved in the No New Jails in Champaign County campaign for over a year. Likely sometime in June or July our efforts will come to a head. The County Board likely will take a vote on whether to close the downtown jail, whether to spend more money on jail construction and whether to fund alternatives to incarceration. This is a crucial turning point. The decision the County Board takes will shape criminal justice in this county for at least a decade. In this article I want to outline some of the work of our campaign and look at what the possibilities are for the future.
In January of 2012 Sheriff Dan Walsh and other elected officials brought forward a proposal to close the downtown jail and build a multi-million dollar extension onto the satellite jail in East Urbana. The idea of millions of taxpayer dollars going into a new jail sparked many of us into action. We were determined to stop this initiative in its tracks. The U.S. already incarcerates more people per capita than any country in the world. We didn’t want to add to that horrific reality in our own county.
Our campaign has involved a number of strategies. A first and perhaps most important move was to holler as loud as we could that there was no way we were going to put up with the Board spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on a new jail. Then County Board member Carol Ammons led the charge, pointing to the fact that African-Americans consistently made up more than 50% of those in the jail, despite being only 13% in the general population. Others joined in as well. Week after week, opponents of the jail, including people from CUCPJ, the Immigration Forum, the ACLU, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), the NAACP, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the Friends Meeting, and many others came forward in the public participation sessions of Board meetings pointing out why spending on jail cells was inappropriate.
But we didn’t just obstruct. We also did research to strengthen our position. This research revealed a number of important things: 1) that 15-20% of those incarcerated had nothing more than non-DUI traffic violations. Why would we want to dedicate millions of dollars in new jail space for them when they didn’t belong behind bars in the first place? 2) that the county took in $4.5 million annually in public safety sales tax. While the county was supposed to be spending this money on law enforcement construction, we began to see it differently―as a pool of funds to change our county’s priorities from incarceration to prevention, from punishing people to developing peoples’ potential through education, treatment, job creation and other programs; 3) that many people in other parts of the country were successfully decarcerating―reducing the number of people behind bars by closing prisons and jails and blocking proposals like what was on the agenda in our county. New York had closed seven prisons, Michigan thirteen. We were not alone.
Aside from our engagement with the board and our research, we did public education and mobilization. We brought four activists from Bloomington, IN to town to speak at a public forum about their success in stopping a jail proposal in their county. This gave us inspiration, assured us that we could win. We also carried out a door to door survey in East Urbana and South Champaign both to get a sense of peoples’ views and inform them what the Board might be doing with their tax dollars. In addition, we collected signatures on petitions to oppose the jail at the Farmers’ Market and other venues. We also made use of social media through a web presence on Facebook and a site housed by a national media group focused on incarceration issues―Nation Inside (The No More Jails In Champaign county is housed at: http://nationinside.org/campaign/stop-jail/)
On one level, these efforts paid off. We contributed to slowing down any moves toward building a jail and have helped to broaden debates about criminal justice in our county. Instead of charging ahead with the architects and engineers, the Board opted to do a needs assessment. They hired a consultancy from Berkeley, a non-profit known as the Institute for Law and Policy Planning (ILPP), to do a thorough investigation. Due to pressure from the community, the ILPP’s work had to cover not only questions of construction, but also possible ways to reduce the need for jail bed space through re-structuring criminal justice operations and providing alternatives to incarceration. In addition, the Board appointed a Community Justice Task Force to look into alternatives to incarceration.
Now however, after more than a year, the process is drawing to a critical point-one where the Board may actually take a decision. The ILPP will submit a final report at the end of May which will include an action plan for the Board. On June 25th the Task Force will submit its final report with recommendations for the development of a number of new alternatives to incarceration.
We don’t know how this will turn out but we have had some glimpses and we are far from winning this battle. On May 2nd, ILPP presented its draft report to a public hearing attended by more than 70 people. Nearly two dozen different residents spoke, largely expressing their concerns that the report did not recommend an enhanced role for the community in the criminal justice system and that there was little funding recommended for alternatives―like community-based mental health services, re-entry programs for those returning from prison and the formation of a racial justice task force to address racial disparities in the jail population. If we want the Board to re-direct money away from jail construction to projects that will keep people out of jail and improve their lives, now is the time to keep up the pressure. Contact your county board member and let them know you don’t want your tax dollars spent on jail cells. Circulate the message through social media that Champaign County does not need new jail facilities. Add your presence at the future Board meetings where decisions will be taken. No More Jails in Champaign County!
James Kilgore belongs to Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justcie (CUCPJ) and Citizens with Conviction, a local group that advocates for the rights of people with felony convictions. He has been active in the No More Jails campaign and is also a member of the Community Justice Task Force in Champaign County.