Advisory committee on Monroe County jail hits rough road trying to find common ground

Outside on the Monroe County courthouse lawn, before Monday’s meeting of the community justice reform committee (CJRC), members of a group called “Care Not Cages” held what they described as a block party—in opposition to construction of a new jail.

At the CJRC meeting itself, members were frank in airing their disappointment about the way the two representatives from the board of county commissioners have approached the work of making recommendations on addressing problems at the jail.

The facility has been described in a consultant’s report as “failing.”

The 14-member CJRC includes county councilors, judges, the sheriff, representatives from the prosecutor’s office, public defenders office, and the county health administrator, among others.

Drawing specific criticism on Monday was the lack of advance information given by commissioners to CJRC members about a trip they took last week to Arizona, to visit correctional facilities there.

County councilor Kate Wiltz said she was “not feeling as though the information that the commissioners are getting is being shared in a transparent manner.” She added, “And that, I think, is the frustration that I’m picking up on in the room.”

Circuit court judge Catherine Stafford said, “I don’t think anyone objects to the commissioners taking a trip—last minute or not.” She continued, “I would have liked to have known about the trips, so that if I had questions that you could have posed to the people there during the trip, we could have all gotten the benefit of those answers. ”

Stafford added, “I think we all would just like to know what’s happening, at least as it’s happening, rather than finding out about it on the agenda, after the fact.

On Monday, county commissioners Lee Jones and Julie Thomas were just as blunt when they described what they see as the proper role for other committee members, especially when it comes to identifying potential land that could serve as the location for a new correctional facility.

At Monday’s meeting, commissioners established that they see it as their role to identify a location for a new jail, and to make the decision about land purchase. That’s a topic that has become more challenging, because in December, on a unanimous vote, Bloomington’s city council rejected a rezone request for land the commissioners wanted to purchase and use for a new jail.

Deputy prosecutor April Wilson asked that the county-owned property off Rogers Street, south of Catalent, be reconsidered as a potential jail location. Jones told her the county has “other plans” for that property.

At one point, Thomas drew an analogy to “lanes,” which was a thread that wound through the rest of the meeting.

“I just want to reiterate that we all have lanes, right?” Thomas said. She continued, “We all have our responsibilities here—council, commissioners, the criminal justice side. We all have our lanes, and we all have aspects of this that need to be addressed in terms of reform.”

Thomas added that she does not think anyone could be expected to hand over their responsibility to “the ‘community’, which is a very broad term.”

County councilors Jennifer Crossley and Kate Wiltz pointed out that the Monroe County council, as the fiscal body of the county, has to approve all the expenditures.

Wiltz put it like this: “County council needs to be on board with your decision. And it’s frustrating to not feel as though our lane is appreciated, so to speak.”

Jones replied to Wiltz by saying, “I think it’s simply a matter of: We haven’t yet reached your lane.”

That remark drew grumbles from the audience. An exasperated Wiltz reacted with: “I am sorry—Wow!”

Another criticism made by CJRC members on Monday was about the composition of the CJRC. It was the county commissioners who established the 14-member CJRC as an advisory group—to make recommendations based on the work of consultants, who delivered reports on Monroe County’s “failing” jail facility 18 months ago.

CJRC members were critical of the fact that county commissioners did not appoint any representatives from the city of Bloomington government to the CJRC, despite calls to do that.

Crossley indicated that without representatives to the CJRC from the city of Bloomington government she does not think the committee can be described as reflective of the community.

Crossley put it like this: “I will continue to beat this old drum, for as long as I can continue to have breath in this old body: We have got to make sure that we are having community input.”

Attending Monday’s meeting were Bloomington councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith, and the city’s public engagement director, Kaisa Goodman, as well as former deputy mayor Don Griffin, who is running for mayor.

Piedmont-Smith and Goodman spoke during the time at the end of the meeting that was allowed for public commentary.

Piedmont-Smith picked up on the theme of “lanes” when she said, “I was quite concerned about the analogy by commissioner Thomas—about us all being in separate lanes. How can we ever come together and work collaboratively, if we all stay in our separate lanes?”

Piedmont-Smith continued, “It seems like it’s only the commissioners who have the roadmap for these lanes.”

Piedmont-Smith added, “Greater communication with the city could avoid problems in the future because we do want to work with you. We do have expertise. And I know commissioner Jones just laughed when I said, “We want to work with you,” well, we do.”

On Monday, the group did not reach the meeting agenda item that was supposed to be a report from the commissioners on their trip to Arizona to visit correctional facilities.

The next meeting of the CJRC is set for Jan. 23 at 4:30 p.m.

A recording of the Zoom broadcast of Monday’s CJRC meeting,  is available under the Jan. 9 calendar event listing. The Zoom recording includes a transcript where each speaking turn is clickable, which cues up the video at the time the turn starts.

Photos: CJRC meeting (Jan. 9, 2023)

11 thoughts on “Advisory committee on Monroe County jail hits rough road trying to find common ground

  1. ‘Piedmont-Smith added, “Greater communication with the city could avoid problems in the future because we do want to work with you. We do have expertise. And I know commissioner Jones just laughed when I said, “We want to work with you,” well, we do.” ‘

    I don’t always agree with Council Member Piedmont-Smith but in my interactions with her I have always found her to be sincere and focused on performing her duties responsibly and well.

    On the other hand, relations between the city and the county have deteriorated so badly that Commissioner Thomas’ skepticism is understandable.

    Understandable but perhaps in this context misplaced. City government is not monolithic. The common council is not the mayor’s office. All council members are not the same.

    The mayor’s proposals for the convention center, which involve eliminating the county from administration of the center, are no doubt deeply offensive to the county commissioners and inappropriate. The idea that the CJRC has no representative of the Bloomington Police Department, a major stakeholder in the jail, boggles my mind.

    The mayor, of course, has chosen not to run for re-election. Perhaps he can avoid further antagonizing the county for the rest of year and we can turn over a new leaf in 2024 with a new mayor.

    In the meantime, it seems that city and county officials need to hang out in a setting without an agenda and get acquainted with each other as human beings trying to do their jobs as best they can, focusing on shared values and common goals rather than policy differences.

    1. The city deserves a major voice in the convention center since it’s the city’s food and beverage tax that is totally funding the convention center.

  2. Lee Jones spoke even more urgently than usual about pushing this jail proposal through, ignoring Jennifer Crosley (the one black voice in county government) and the many others asking to slow this process down and take it seriously.

    In my opinion, Jones acted completed unprofessionally during this meeting. She and Julie Thomas are taking up way too much space in the conversation. Instead of making excuses about why they shouldn’t have to engage the city and the public more throughout this process, they should be LISTENING and adjusting what they are doing to more meaningfully take into account the many silenced voices here.

    1. Lee Jone’s ego is slightly smaller than some of our western states. She has held office for far too long.

  3. Thank goodness for Kate and Jennifer. We have now learned how controlling the Commissioners really are.

  4. just wanted to ensure someone is here saying how important it is that the jail is downtown. so i guess it’s me. 🙂

    inmates need access to visitors. and when they are released they need access to transportation and community resources. and during their trials they need access to the courts. i understand that segregation is literally the purpose of the jail but taking this extra step of segregating them outside of the city (or at its very edge as in the recently-rejected proposal) would be a disaster.

    this is especially true since the county govt seems to think one of the benefits of a new jail is the ability to include a lot of other facilities on site. support for people on probation or diversion or counseling programs will be rendered ineffective if people can’t physically get to the jail. daily work release becomes that much harder when the jail is isolated.

    we need to keep in mind that a lot of the inmate population has drug problems, and demanding that they drive in order to reach the services they need in order to have successful transitions is a disaster. it’s true that downtown isn’t accessible to everybody, but it’s much more accessible than any other location in the county. it’s where all the bus lines come together. it’s the natural and traditional place for courthouses, jails, criminal lawyers, and most other government buildings.

    if the jail is to be successful, it needs to be designed to be permeable. to reflect that members of the community come in and out of it. and at its heart, that is a transportation problem. downtown is the only answer.

    1. This write-up gave the scant substantive discussion short shrift, but I think the topic of downtown versus not downtown will get a lot more scrutiny at upcoming meetings. That’s based on the longer answer that commissioner Jones gave to the question about renewed consideration of the Rogers Street location, which included this:

      In the modern world now, jails are mostly discovering that they really cannot locate downtown. They may have originally located in a situation like that. But there are multiple reasons why that’s no longer possible. And there are also multiple solutions for the problems that come up with it not being located downtown. And we have been spending some time looking into those solutions and thinking about just how this problem would be handled. Of course, this is a problem that was brought up with the Fulton Pike location. And that problem doesn’t change, just because we didn’t get the Fulton Pike location.

  5. I would agree there will be more scrutiny about not locating downtown, given Jones used a lot of words without any real meat behind any of them. We as citizens within Monroe County still do not have a real estimate of the cost to fix and refurb the existing jail.

  6. Perhaps it’s time for the Commissioners to explain the plans they have for the Rogers St property, so we can all discuss whether a jail would be a better alternative. It doesn’t help that it’s kept a secret

  7. How telling it is that the voices of victims — true stakeholders in not only who goes to jail but how inmates are handled there and who decides to put them there — have been denied a voice on the committee. We have judges on the committee who openly speak to not wanting to put violent criminals in our local jail (and their track record shows it), but they have been deemed to have great expertise in this process that they have four representatives.

    And please don’t con yourself that the prosecutor’s office has the interests of victims in mind. The interests of violent crime victims and the state rarely align.

    What about all the thousand-plus people in Monroe County who live under Court order of protection, who’s looking out for them in this process? How are we approaching investment in Internet surveillance of prisoners’ activities, cameras in the jail to help make prosecution of in-jail crimes easier, software to translate calls, etc.

    Another day for victims getting screwed in this town.

  8. The June 2021 RJS Report makes it clear that the primary driver of jail over-crowding is excessive case time. This is a complex policy problem.
    The jail obviously has past-due maintenance and repair issues too, as detailed in the report. We should absolutely look into the cost of refurbishment before we even LOOK at the path to building a brand new facility.

    Building a new jail is akin to using larger and larger buckets to catch the water instead of fixing the leak itself.

    RJS Report: https://bsquarebulletin.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/MCICJ-Study-Final-Report-Submitted-062021.pdf

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