The Champaign County Board is entertaining the idea of spending $32 million on new jail construction. Jail architects, Kimme & Associates, were hired by the county for $150,000 to report on the current jails and propose the construction of a new one. The failure of the county to maintain its two other jails―the “downtown jail” and the “satellite jail”―is one big motivation behind the county board’s decision to consider construction. But Champaign county citizens and activists are troubled at the thought of spending $32 million on building more jail cells while the root causes of arrest and incarceration go largely unaddressed by the county, especially in the moment of #BlackLivesMatter.
At their acceptance speech at the Oscars for their song “Glory” featured in the motion picture “Selma,” musicians Common and John Legend reminded the audience, “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.” Indeed, the United States leads every other country in rates of incarceration, imprisoning 2.3 million of its own citizens, a 400% increase over the past 30 years, despite a drop in the rates of violent crimes. Augustus Wood, Co-president of the Graduate Employee Organization explains that prisons are built for profit and to create a surplus population for cheap labor: “Black people are explicitly targeted as we make up almost 40 percent of the incarcerated population in the United States. This jail construction is as much a racial issue as it is an economic issue and we will fight it as such.”
Racial disparity in the criminal justice system has finally come into national view, as the country reels with protest over the continuous killing of unarmed black men at the hands of police. Our own county – a mere 3 hour drive from Ferguson – is not immune from this disparity or this violence. According to the Planner’s Network, over half of those held at Champaign County’s jails are African American, despite African Americans making up 13% of the county’s population. A criminal justice assessment report delivered to the County Board in September of 2013 by the Institute for Law & Policy Planning (ILPP) reports, “While the County’s African American community has called attention to the issue of racial disparity, this perception has been left unaddressed by leaders in the criminal justice system.”
Despite the ILPP report outlining numerous recommendations, from pretrial services to reentry programs, Champaign County still faces a horrific lack of these necessary programs. The county also has no detox center nor does it have a community based mental health program that can fulfill the needs of the county; a seriously flawed dynamic considering who is most likely to wind up in our jails. A recent jail study by the Vera Institute of Justice states that jails have become “massive warehouses” mostly for those living in poverty and suffering from mental illness.
While board members vary in their perspectives on criminal justice reform, all seem to agree that the county cannot afford $32 million construction. “In my estimation, we will likely have a bond referendum to address our facilities’ needs,” says new board member Sam Shore, “To support such a referendum, I will need to see funds within it that can be earmarked to lower our incarceration rate and better serve our population through programming.”
Citizens and activists mobilizing around halting jail construction hope others will also see the financial and social benefits of funding programs. “I’m encouraged that some people on the County Board see this as more than just another building project,” says activist Rohn Koester who works on the “Build Programs, Not Jails” campaign and has been a tutor inside the jails for several years. “Discussions about criminal justice reform and reduced incarceration get to the heart of who we want to be as a community.”
For the privileged, the jail cell remains an imaginary symbol of safety and for the underprivileged a realistically possible fate. Champaign County has a unique opportunity to actively address and reverse racial inequality and to prove that the archaic practice of caging the poor, sick, and addicted can truly be done away with. As the Vera jail study concludes, “A significant body of research shows that our reliance on incarceration as a primary crime control has had only a marginal impact on public safety. As a result, there is an emerging consensus that it has not been worth the fiscal and human costs.”
Kristina has been a social justice activist for 17 years. She currently works on the “Build Programs, Not Jails” campaign and serves Champaign as a birth justice advocate.