Roundup: Reaction from city, county officials to inhumane Monroe County jail conditions

A week has passed since new Monroe County sheriff Ruben Marté, chief deputy Phil Parker and jail commander Kyle Gibbons, gave a presentation on the horrific conditions at the jail, which confronted them when Marté was sworn into office at the start of the year.

A slide deck depicting current jail conditions was shown at last Monday’s meeting of the community justice response committee (CJRC).

The slides showed prisoners using overturned cups as pillows as they slept on the floor, clogged toilets, overflow from showers and toilets dripping through the ceiling of the floor below, and racist graffiti, among other scenes.

As deplorable as the conditions displayed in the slides were, the images were still missing two crucial elements, Marté said: The smell and the sounds of the jail.

In public statements made by city and county officials in the week since the presentation, the jail conditions have been uniformly denounced.

The county commissioners have also been criticized for recent changes they have made to the composition of the CJRC.

Those changes meant the removal of two of the four judges, no appointments for any city officials, but the addition of a third commissioner. All three county commissioners are now members of the committee: Penny Githens, Julie Thomas, and Lee Jones.

Last Monday, other committee members called for the commissioners to rethink the membership changes and to add city officials to the mix.

The changes to committee membership were set to be “ratified” at the Jan. 25 meeting of the county commissioners, after getting a unanimous vote at a work session the previous week on Jan. 18. But their regular meeting for Jan. 25 was canceled due to a forecasted winter storm. So those changes will likely appear on the commissioners Feb. 1 meeting agenda.

Some of the response to the sheriff’s report on conditions at the jail has included calls for a focus on getting conditions at the jail up to a humane standard, instead of arguing about the committee composition.

County councilor Marty Hawk put it like this in her remarks at last Tuesday’s county council meeting, which was the day after Marté’s presentation: “[T]hose around the table decided to fuss with one another, instead of coming together.”

Hawk said a better approach was the one taken by county council president Kate Wiltz and county commissioner Julie Thomas—they’re both members of the CJRC—immediately after last Monday’s meeting. The two had talked together about what the next steps will be.

Their current plan is to work with Marté and the contractor for jail building maintenance—David Gardner with ASI Facilities Services Inc.—come up with a list of projects that needs to be funded.

Also calling for a greater focus on improving conditions at the jail was the woman whose name appears on the side of the Charlotte Zietlow Justice Center at College Avenue and 7th Street.

In an email message—which was sent to the three county commissioners, county councilors Jennifer Crossley and Kate Wiltz and presiding judge of the Monroe County circuit court Mary Ellen Diekhoff—Zietlow wrote: “This is not the time to point fingers but this is the time to do something.”

Zietlow continued, “I am distressed by the amount of finger pointing in the meeting.” She added, “I would hope everybody would look at this situation, to determine what we can do right now while you’re working with the community to figure out what kind of building we need.”

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…”

A theme that Marté hit hard at last Monday’s CJRC meeting was the idea of addressing current conditions while planning for a new building. “We have the capability of doing both,” Marté said.

Zietlow compared the conditions at the jail to the treatment of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police, when they beat and kicked him during a traffic stop, causing his eventual death.

Zietlow wrote, “I think the kind of treatment [Nichols] got from the police is an unwarranted and malicious failure of our justice system, but the condition of the [Monroe County] jail is an equally unwarranted inhumane way to deal with our fellow citizens.”

Zietlow wrote that the conditions shown in the slides “indicated years of serious neglect and lack of oversight.”

More specific was Bloomington councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith, who said during report time at the council’s Jan. 25 meeting, “It is a dereliction of duty by our former sheriff Brad Swain, that he let things get to this point.” She continued, “I don’t think he’s the first. But he’s the most recent sheriff who has overseen these horrendous conditions and not done anything to improve them.”

Also commenting on events at last week’s CJRC meeting was Bloomington city councilmember Steve Volan, who focused on the the way county commissioners are considering input from other CJRC members. Volan said, “It seems like the commissioners are also not really even listening to the committee that they convened.”

Volan put his remarks in the context of a decision late last year by the Bloomington city council to deny a rezone request for a potential new jail site. CJRC member and deputy prosecutor April Wilson has called for the inclusion of city officials on the committee, in part so that their assistance can be more easily tapped for identifying potential sites for new jail construction.

In that context Volan said, “In the room…already gathered are a dozen or more people with a direct interest in the justice system, who [the county commissioners] seem to only be technically paying attention to, but they’re not really taking their suggestions seriously.”

City councilmember Sims stated that he agreed with Volan’s remarks.

City councilmember Susan Sandberg said, “I think it is clear that a new jail is required.” What is missing, Sandberg said, is the required cooperation between the city and county on the jail. Sandberg said she hopes “that we can get past some of the barriers that are keeping the conversations from being more productive.”

On the day immediately following the sheriff’s presentation on jail conditions, county councilor Cheryl Munson, said “It was very disturbing, of course, to see photographs of conditions at the jail. We needed to see them. I’m glad they were shown to us even though they were horrific.”

Munson wrapped up saying, “I’m glad we saw it. We’re going to take care of it.”

About the recording of the Jan. 23 CJRC meeting, county council president Kate Wiltz said, “Watch it, if you’ve got the stomach for it.”

3 thoughts on “Roundup: Reaction from city, county officials to inhumane Monroe County jail conditions

  1. The time for action is now to bring the current jail up to the basic levels of humane treatment. Stop wagging tongues and pointing fingers; fix it NOW! Will it take another lawsuit to get this done? Let’s hope not.

  2. The county commissioners seem perfectly willing to exacerbate or prolong or ignore the problems in our jail so long as the end result is a project that fits their preferred vision, consists of their preferred solutions, and upholds their “power” over the process. I wonder how long the Commissioners would be willing to continue this political charade/game when they’re served with a lawsuit from past and current Monroe County inmates, alleging cruel/unusual punishment, inhumane treatment, and human rights violations, naming the Commissioners in their professional capacity as the executive branch of Monroe County?

    I certainly don’t wish for there to be a suit brought against Monroe County government for this reason. I certainly also wouldn’t blame a past/present inmate with the means to sue (or an attorney/firm/nonprofit willing to bring the suit pro bono) for taking that route to make a statement that this type of treatment is unacceptable. The Commissioners are playing with fire, yet can’t see that the community is laughing/outraged at them for taking the risk that accompanies playing with fire. It’s embarrassing, frankly. We NEED new blood in the Commissioners’ office.

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