Photograph by Steven Higgs
The Monroe County Jail occupies the top two floors of the Justice Building in downtown Bloomington. Built to hold 124 prisoners in 1985, the jail population averages twice the capacity. Community pressure and a new state law on public intoxication may reduce the overcrowding.
Though the U.S. contains less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it confines nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Furthermore, as of 2008 it had 2.3 million in jails and prisons, according to the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College, London.
Reducing the population in the Monroe County jail is the goal of a local, grassroots organization, Decarcerate Monroe County (DMC). In its own words, DMC “is a local coalition challenging the belief that cages, coercion and confinement keep our community safe. DMC believes people are safe when they have their basic needs met and when they feel empowered and free.”
Safety and incarceration
To raise consciousness about local criminal justice issues, DMC holds public meetings and workshops. When participants are asked what makes them feel safe, they mention job security, secure housing, enough food, having no debt and knowing their neighbors, among other things. They don’t mention the police. Indeed, DMC says, research has shown that more police doesn’t mean less crime.
“More police means more arrests, but neither greater crime prevention nor resolution,” according to a DMC pamphlet.
DMC member Erin Marshall holds that the root causes of imprisonment are social and that incarceration is a way of dealing with social problems that have other solutions. "It’s kind of the easy way out,” she said in an interview.
Monroe County's 2012 budget earmarks $4.3 million to operate the jail, not counting what it spends on other aspects of the criminal justice system, including the sheriff's department, county courts and probation. One of DMC’s campaigns is attempting to reroute some of the sheriff’s funding to preventive programs, such as Centerstone, Amethyst House, Habitat for Humanity, Rhino’s, and the Boys and Girls Club.
"More police means more arrests, but neither greater crime prevention nor resolution." - Decarcerate Monroe County pamphlet
The criminal justice system targets working people and the poor, according to Marshall. Take public intoxication and driving while intoxicated. They are behaviors that people across the class spectrum indulge in, but a disproportionate number of poor people and people of color are prosecuted for them, in part because their neighborhoods are policed more heavily than wealthier, white neighborhoods.
DMC points out that people get caught up in the criminal justice system for many reasons – mental health issues, drug use, and lack of employment, education, food and housing – and being arrested doesn’t help their situations.
“One thing that jail does that’s devastating,” DMC member Micol Seigel said in an interview, “is to prevent people from continuing to develop employment skills and a record of employment, which is crucial to getting a job and being able to support a family.”
Jail, DMC argues, destabilizes families and communities by confining breadwinners, caretakers and loved ones.
Incarceration, according to Seigel, “fails to provide the kinds of protection that people entrust it with.” Prison isn’t a deterrent and doesn’t rehabilitate.
The media highlights violent crimes, which amount to a tiny fraction of the crimes committed. “Violence is the basis on which we constructed this behemoth that imprisons people who really don’t need to be there,” according to Seigel. Most people are in prison on the strength of our fear of violent stranger crime, and the size of the prison population results from the success “of the fear mongering around that kind of question.”
The significant crimes are ones that people don’t go to prison for, those done by the rich and powerful “that do major damage to everyone,” Marshall said.
Reducing the jail population
If addressing people’s basic needs is one way of reducing the jail population, another is to stop arresting and jailing people for minor crimes, says DMC.
"DMC member Erin Marshall holds that the root causes of imprisonment are social and that incarceration is a way of dealing with social problems that have other solutions."
In Monroe County, according to a March Herald-Times report, the top two jail admissions in 2011 were for public intoxication and drunken driving. Other states don’t arrest people for public intoxication if they’re not disorderly. In fact, in July 1 a new law modifying the public intoxication statute went into effect in Indiana requiring that people be arrested only if they are both intoxicated and disorderly.
This higher standard of conviction and arrest is something DMC has been arguing for and will reduce the jail population in Monroe County.
Still another way to reduce the jail population in Monroe County is not incarcerating men for failure to provide child support when the reason is poverty and mothers don’t want the men incarcerated because they're helping in nonfinancial ways, such as baby-sitting, so the mothers can work.
“It is absurd,” a DMC pamphlet says, “for the jail system to deprive a mother of vital support (baby-sitting, providing fatherly love) that she wants because a man is unable to contribute financially.”
Ceasing to detain people who will be tried for crimes against property, misdemeanors or other trivial offenses is yet another way to reduce the jail population, according to DMC.
Drug addiction should be decriminalized and treated as a health problem, says DMC. Diverting money from criminal justice to addiction programs would shrink the rate of incarceration and create real safety for drug abusers and their families.
Effecting change in the system
DMC not only tries to raise consciousness about jail issues but works toward effecting changes in the system. In a detailed pamphlet DMC published, Our Community Justice System: Practical Local Solutions, DMC offers concrete recommendations for steps the city and Monroe County can take to alleviate incarceration problems.
The pamphlet targets public officials – the mayor and city council, the police, the board of judges and probation department, county commissioners, county council, county prosecutor, sheriff and jail commander – and details what actions they each can take to improve the system.
"It is absurd for the jail system to deprive a mother of vital support (baby-sitting, providing fatherly love) that she wants because a man is unable to contribute financially." - Decarcerate Monroe County pamphlet
For example, to quote the pamphlet, “The mayor is in charge of the police. Mayor Kruzan could instruct police to focus on real police work and to back off petty crime, especially public intoxication. Prosecutor Chris Gaal and the judges could do the same. The city and county could then cut the police and jail budget and invest a “peace dividend” in the things that REALLY make us safe.”
DMC’s greatest achievement so far was to help halt a proposal for a new jail complex, which would have included a jail, juvenile detention facility and offices for criminal justice. In fact, DMC was formed early in 2008 to oppose the county’s proposal for a new “corrections campus.” The proposed jail was to accommodate 350-400 inmates, whereas the current jail was designed to contain 124 beds but, according to the advocacy group New Leaf, New Life, actually holds an average of 250 inmates at any given time.
The thought among public officials was that because of overcrowding, poor conditions and the growing population of Bloomington, a larger jail was needed.
With a contract for the design and programming of a new jail approved by the county council in April 2008, at a cost of $64-78 million, it looked like a done deal. However, on May 3 DMC held a public meeting at which community members spoke to politicians and county officials about what safety really meant to them: “not locking up their friends and neighbors, but healthy, well-fed, adequately-housed communities with resources for problem-solving not based on punishment and retribution. Community agencies that work with the criminal justice system, including groups focused on domestic violence, substance abuse, alternative dispute resolution, and food distribution were invited to think about the ways their work already made incarceration less necessary and could be expanded to decrease our reliance on the criminal justice system even further,” according to DMC’ s fall 2009 newsletter.
By speaking out at local government meetings and holding its own public meetings, DMC changed the conversation about incarceration in the county.
It helped that in July 1, 2008, a new state statute went into effect requiring any capital construction expenditure over $12 million to be approved by the voters in a public referendum. That meant the county commissioners had to get the voters behind the project and couldn’t make decisions about a new jail by themselves.
In January 2009 DMC held another public meeting, in which it encouraged “those in attendance to be creative about possible alternatives to incarceration and jail overcrowding.”
"We have to change the common sense that more police means more safety." - Micol Seigel, DMC member
Over 13 months the county reversed its position on a new jail, and in July 2009 Jail Supervisor Bill Wilson issued a report rejecting the proposal for a new jail in favor of making improvements to the current jail at a cost of only $1-2 million.
By August 2009 the proposal for a new jail was dead.
Currently DMC is involved in a policing campaign, challenging the common assumption that the presence of police makes us feel safe. Increasing the police budget over the last couple of years, DMC says, hasn’t decreased serious crimes in our community.
“We have to change the common sense that more police means more safety,” Seigel said.
On July 14 DMC sponsored a public workshop to discuss what constitutes public safety and how the $18 million Monroe County spends on criminal justice each year could be put to better use, reducing the number of people incarcerated in the jail. The workshop resulted in the establishment of two working groups, one on revamping the county's criminal justice budget and the other on approaching neighborhood associations to try to educate people about safety.
DMC holds meetings on the first Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. at the Monroe County Public Library. On the first Sunday of the month it screens a film relevant to criminal justice at 2:30 p.m. at the library. Its website is dmccoalition.org and its email address, email@example.com.
Linda Greene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.