Voices from the No More Jails Campaign

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In early 2012 the powers that be in Champaign County criminal justice brought forward a plan to close the downtown jail and build a massive extension onto the satellite facility in East Urbana. When the proposal came before the County Board for the first time, most members responded with great enthusiasm for this multi-million dollar project. But Board member Carol Ammons spoke out against the jail construction. Not long after, a number of people from CUCPJ joined Carol in opposing spending taxpayer dollars on new jail cells. Then for nearly two years, members of what became the No More Jails campaign mobilized around two demands:  no money for jail construction and the inclusion of the community in any decision made around spending money on criminal justice. Campaign members employed a number of tactics: speaking out during public participation at Board meetings, holding public forums on the jail issue,  organizing petition drives, tabling at events like Farmers’ markets and C-U days, conducting door-to-door surveys and carrying out research on alternatives to incarceration. Despite bucking the odds, by November 21, 2013 a major shift had taken place. After commissioning a needs assessment from a California consultant and appointing a Community Justice Task Force to propose alternatives to incarceration, the Board opted for no jail construction. Instead they allocated $200,000 for new programs to keep people out of jail. The community’s voice had been heard. In the mainstream media, activist voices were glaringly absent. We thought it was important to highlight the experience of those who participated in the campaign. Below, we hear some of those voices speak out on what they have learned from this campaign and what the future holds for further efforts at re-vamping our criminal justice system.

James Kilgore and Brian Dolinar, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice

Carol Ammons, CUCPJ and former County Board member:

The Champaign County Board was presented with the opportunity to use public safety sales tax dollars to increase access to rehabilitation services for people in and outside of our jails, while protecting public safety and reducing costs. I strongly felt that the evidence was clear that diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration save money and improve public safety in both the short and long term. The people in our county are in need of educational, physical and mental health services, substance abuse and treatment services, and re-entry services that could be provided much more cheaply, effectively and comprehensively outside of jail, and the Board voted in agreement with that philosophy. Our effort helped to provide the context for needed re-entry services which are proven to reduce recidivism and save public dollars. The next steps will be determined based on the number of resources that are allocated toward this paradigm shift.

Francisco Baires, C-U Immigration Forum:

Any kind of criminalization of people of color, of any people whether it’s a lifestyle, a race, an ethnicity, endangers everybody. The campaign was great―it is a victory for local social justice.  We all stand to benefit from that work. These are victories that have to be preserved and protected as we moved forward.

Businesspeople and politicians who sometimes get marching orders from moneyed interests take advantage any time they can profit off of incarcerating one group of people. Immigrants and their advocates need to pay attention to this. There is a direct correlation between corrections corporations and those people pushing for more jails.

Danielle Chynoweth, CUCPJ

We are the seeds of a mass movement against the New Jim Crow―one that isn’t confined to one part of the population, but has the potential transform our entire culture’s concept of self and other to challenge the harmful story of “good guys and bad guys.”

Because of the grassroots organizing efforts, Champaign County is helping to lead the way. For a year and a half the No More Jails campaign helped engage the county board in a critical dialogue about our racialized criminal justice system in Champaign County (see www.nationinside.org/campaign/stop-jail). Decades of massive building projects―a lavish courthouse, a taller clock tower, a juvenile detention center, and new satellite jail―have left our county in spiritual and financial debt.

As a result of our action research, independent reporting, bridge building, and advocacy, we are starting to have more air, light, compassion and thought around this issue.

Mark Enslin, CUCPJ

I learned from the No More Jails campaign how the insight of Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” means forming a demand that is clear, just, connects the dots, and is impossible to meet—under the current state of power. I learned that when those of us who are indirectly affected by injustice decide to work with, and take cues from, those of us who are directly affected, we all might surprise ourselves with how quickly the barriers to justice crumble. But I also learned that after power concedes to a demand, it continues to try sneakier means. What next for the campaign? Work against gentrification and for low-cost housing, against the War on Drugs and for expanded treatment, against the criminalization of poverty and for a living wage, while we insist on implementation of the concrete steps in the consultant and task force reports—and a change of mindset away from punishment and toward an ethic of care.

Chris Evans, CUCPJ

We need employment in this county. We also need educational asylums to heal people of mental problems, and drug and alcohol addictions. We need family planning to help people resolve toxic relationships. We need housing for those having to start over after mass incarceration. Our crime problem is an unemployment problem, a health problem, and a housing problem.

Citizen involvement from all disciplines, all walks of life, all perspectives, and all backgrounds is going to be critical toward reducing the incidents of crime. The state’s attorney is completely correct in assessing the situation as one that needs the entire community to take part. The county board does not have the expertise to solve the problems, nor should they be expected to. They need our help to design a future that does not incarcerate ourselves, our children and our grandchildren into a cage not fit for dogs.

Scott Humphrey, Planners’ Network

During my first day out in Urbana I was introduced to the campaign by Mark Enslin and Durl Kruse, who had set up at the Farmers Market. The giant painted wooden check made out to “No New Jails” for $20M was eye-catching, and I learned from them about the campaign and was invited to the regular Saturday CUCPJ meeting at the Independent Media Center. As I attended meetings, and began to learn from people like Carol and Aaron Ammons, James Kilgore, Ken Salo, Chris Evans and others, I started to see my graduate studies through the lens of local action. As a result, I better understand the intersections of urban planning and incarceration. We should remember that many students who arrive here are philosophically aligned to support this work but unless they are met by a consistent presence (of real people) at places like the Farmers Market and the IMC, their contributions may never be realized. This does a great disservice to both the student and the campaign they may benefit.

Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO)

Natalye Tate

Asking membership to consider the concerns of the community surrounding them was an opportunity for individuals to investigate the relationship between criminalization, institutional racism, and access to quality public education.

Rafter Ferguson

The GEO, like unions everywhere, needs to directly engage with organizations like No More Jails. We need to confront and undermine the strategy of mass incarceration in a spirit of shared struggle, to win a livable future for ourselves and our children.

Anna Kurhajec

When we surveyed community members from across the county about what they want to see in their community, no one said they wanted a bigger jail. Instead, people wanted things like better-funded schools, more jobs, and more community support for those who are struggling. The No More Jails campaign has helped to shift the conversation about criminal justice in our county: it is becoming less and less about locking people up and more and more about finding ways to actually make the community safer through support and engagement.. Our work isn’t over: we must continue to voice our concerns and send the message that we want programs, community input, and other kinds of community support networks. They benefit all members of our community and move us towards becoming a county with real public safety, not just a bigger jail.

Sophia Lewis, Women in the Jail (WITJ) Workgroup of CUCPJ

The Workgroup started in March 2013. We outlined our concerns about women jailed in the Champaign County facility before the jail consultant. Among other issues, there are virtually no same-room parent-child (physical) contact visits; only glass-barrier window visits. Contact visits had been officially banned in January 2010 by the previous jail superintendent. After meeting with the Sheriff, he made us clear on how to help him restore parent-child contact visits, offering for us to come up with the proposal. We intend to do so in keeping with the (San Francisco originated, United Nations approved) Bill of Rights of Children of Incarcerated Parents. The steps of discovering all of these things were among WITJ’s objectives that were concrete although they presented themselves organically. WITJ’s other priority, however, was to show CUCPJ’s at-large membership how the issue of women who are incarcerated and their children connects to the overall “No More Jails” campaign. Child custody issues with DCFS, working in cohesion with criminal justice authorities, also relates. The status of those issues has such an impact on core goals as prevention, lowered recidivism, and good societal re-entry that it really belongs as both an integral part and one of the underpinnings of the campaign. Many CUCPJ members became ever more supportive as the campaign progressed. For all of the help and gestures that supportiveness entailed, we are truly very grateful.

Martel Miller, CUCPJ

I learned what happens when people come to together to express their hearts and put forth their efforts. People can, in fact, change plans that were already decided. If people hadn’t stepped up, they would have been breaking ground on a new $22 million dollar jail last summer. There needs to be a financial investment in the rehabilitation, health, and well-being of the people in this community.

Niloofar Shamabayati, CUCPJ

I joined the No More Jails Campaign in April 2013, encouraged by Michelle Alexander’s talk at the university and two public forums on the subject of mass incarceration. Most of my education, however, occurred while I was working on the campaign. Our work may appear to have ended, but I think this victory has been partial and has afforded us only a short respite.

I witnessed the best of representative democracy at work, which convinced me that the only way to have genuine democracy is to build it ourselves. The process is slow, at times frustrating and tiring, and never-ending. I also learned the essentiality of reminding the members of our most democratically responsive institutions, such as county boards, that they are “we,” and that the community and their own conscience should guide their decisions, not the perceived authority of high-office-holders.

Diane Zell, President, National Alliance on Mental Illness Champaign County

The power of our diverse groups, working together where our personal interests intersected, was inspiring to see. We remain committed to improving the quality of the lives of those who live with the ongoing challenges of poverty and discrimination and/or stigma. We realize that our personal and often heartbreaking stories, which showcase our common humanity despite the additional challenges we face as formerly incarcerated citizens and/or persons living with mental illnesses, effectively impel those in power to stop and think. For example, one in four adults is affected by a mental health disorder in any given year. We all know someone who is affected!

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Martel Miller (foreground) and Sophia Lewis stand outside the satellite jail demanding justice

Martel Miller (foreground) and Sophia Lewis stand outside the satellite jail demanding justice

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