“It looks like that’s not even the United States of America.”
That was Monroe County’s new jail commander Kyle Gibbons talking about a photograph he had displayed for Monday’s meeting of the community justice response committee (CJRC). It was from a slide deck he’d prepared, in order to show committee members conditions inside the jail when he took over at the start of the year.
In the photo, a pitcher of water had been placed on the floor outside a cell door. Jail staff were using it as a stop gap to give inmates water on request—because the water wasn’t working in the cell at the time.
Gibbons told committee members, “The staff was just trying to make sure people had water. …They were trying to ensure that everybody had access to basic human rights.”
But the color of the water inside the pitcher looked sketchy enough that county councilor Peter Iversen asked Gibbons, “That’s drinkable water?!” The glum reply from Gibbons: “That’s drinkable water.”
Monday’s slide deck was a visual followup to oral presentations that Gibbons has given to county commissioners and county councilors in the last couple of weeks.
The visuals he presented on Monday appeared to have a sobering impact on committee members.
The photographic tour of the jail—which was provided by Gibbons, sheriff Ruben Marté and chief deputy sheriff Phil Parker—was the highlight of Monday’s meeting.
But the contentious character of interactions between the county commissioners and other committee members—about the inclusion of some city officials on the committee—continued from the committee’s first meeting of the year.
After calls to add some city officials to the committee, the county commissioners last week enacted a change to the ordinance creating the committee—adding the third county commissioner, but reducing the number of judges from four to two. No city officials were added.
Mary Ellen Diekhoff, who is the presiding judge for Monroe County’s board of judges, attended Monday’s meeting. It had initially been canceled, out of consideration for the fact that Diekhoff cannot attend the meetings, due to a scheduling conflict with a class she teaches.
But Diekhoff herself said at Monday’s meeting, “I was surprised when I got the email that said that the meeting was rescheduled for today, because it was ‘imperative’ that I was here.” She added, “Quite honestly, there were judges here. And I don’t really consider myself all that important enough to be singled out.”
Also attending Monday’s meeting were the other three judges who have been serving on the committee for the last half year: Catherine Stafford, Kara Krothe and Darcie Fawcett.
Speaking to the commissioners, Krothe asked why they thought it was necessary to reduce the number of judges. “The three of us have put in six months, have gone on jail tours. We’ve done separate meetings where we’ve talked about issues on the jail.”
Krothe continued, “So to me the timing was interesting. The lack of clarity, lack of communication was interesting.” She added, “I didn’t even know that we were changing the composition of the committee.”
Responding to Krothe was county commissioner Penny Githens, who said, “We’re just trying to speed up the process, make it faster. We have to move forward, we don’t have a choice.” Githens added, “Things have kind of drug on, and we want to move that forward.”
The committee was established as a response to the reports from two consultants, which were delivered to county government 18 months ago. As one of the reports puts it: “The jail facility is failing…”
As it stands now, it appears that Diekhoff will appoint the other judge, based on the new composition of the committee—which the commissioners enacted last week. They’re supposed to “ratify” committee membership change at their meeting this Wednesday.
Based on discussion at Monday’s meeting, it’s not clear if a new regular meeting time will be found, to avoid a scheduling conflict for Diekhoff, or if the committee will maintain the same first-and-third-Monday 4:30 p.m. schedule, which it has followed up to now. That means the next meeting time and day for the CJRC are not certain.
A chance for public comment was offered at the end of Monday’s meeting only after some back-and-forth between the county commissioners and other committee members. The meeting had reached the end of its scheduled time without reaching the item on the agenda for public participation.
Deputy prosecutor April Wilson helped get things rolling in the direction of starting the public commentary, when she yielding her spot at the table, in order to make a chair and mic available for those who wanted to speak.
Joining via the Zoom interface was Kyle Dugger, who is a deputy public defender for Monroe County, but who told the group he was not speaking in that capacity, but instead as a resident of the county.
Dugger praised sheriff Marté: “I wanted to applaud the sheriff for his basically trying to bring to the committee the immediacy of the problem that exists in the jail right now.”
Dugger continued, “It is a profound vindication to have…the custodians of the jail acknowledge the horrific conditions that are there, because those are things that have been obfuscated.” He added, “I know they’re not allowed to say it, but I’ll say the jail has obviously been horrifically mismanaged for years, if not decades. And now he is trying to come in and clean up this mess.”
One of the slides presented by Gibbons showed inmates sleeping on the floor in the intake area, some of them using overturned cups as makeshift pillows. Gibbons also presented a slide showing conditions in the intake area after it had been power washed, the drain had been cleaned of urine, and all inmates had been issued a mat to lie down on.
The “before” photo of the intake area supported a claim that Dugger said his clients have made. Other photos corroborated additional claims by his clients. Dugger said: “There are people who are booked in and not given a bed or water for days. Or put in a room with a toilet that won’t flush, that has feces in it, and have to live in there with the smell. Or to have feces and urine and vomit spread on the walls.”
In his remarks, Marté talked about improving current conditions at the jail, even while planning for a new facility: “We have the capability of doing both.”
Marté’s approach had been called “too fast” by some, he told the committee. A photograph of some graffiti on a cell wall underscored the reason he’s approaching the task of cleaning up the jail as fast as possible.
The graffiti read: “No [N-word]s.”
“I took it personal,” Marté said. He continued, “I’m a Black Latino male. And when I see something like that, that is throughout the jail, I cannot move slow.”
Marté continued, “That’s the reason why I want to be able to paint and clean. That’s the reason why I’m taking it personally.”
But Marté told the committee, “I cannot do this by myself, I need support. Simple as that: I need support.”
Some of that support could be reflected in an additional appropriation for jail building maintenance sometime in the next few weeks. After Monday’s meeting, county commissioner Julie Thomas and county council president Kate Wiltz touched base on an approach for that appropriation.
Photos: CJRC meeting (Jan. 23, 2023)