Jail committee tries to turn page on infighting: “Talking more is always a good antidote to talking less or talking crosswise.”

This Monday marked the first meeting of Monroe County’s community justice response committee (CJRC) after the membership was revised by county commissioners—to include all three commissioners, reduce the number of judges from four to two, but not add any representatives from Bloomington city government.

The previous couple of meetings had been contentious.

And much of the friction centered on the makeup of the group, which is supposed to be responding to the work of two consultants, released to the county government more than 18 months ago.

The meetings were contentious enough to prompt a rebuke of the committee from various quarters. Friction between the judicial and the executive branch surfaced about how input is treated from different people at the table, and how information is shared.

That friction surfaced at a previous meeting when county commissioner Lee Jones told circuit court judge Catherine Stafford, “I’m sorry, Catherine, would you please stop interrupting me.”

This Monday, it was Stafford who was asked by committee co-chair county commissioner Penny Githens to get the meeting started with some remarks.

The way Githens cued up Stafford’s speaking turn made it plain she wanted to start a new chapter: “I was chatting with my friend judge Stafford recently, and I was going to ask her if she would start the meeting off with just a few brief sentences.”

Stafford responded by alluding to some of the rocky terrain the committee had traversed: “I think that talking more is always a good antidote to talking less, or talking crosswise.”

Stafford then laid out the points of agreement that she thinks the members of the committee share.

As a first point of agreement, Stafford said, “The current jail is not acceptable, in terms of its level of constitutional care for inmates.”

A second point of agreement identified by Stafford was “Inmates are members of our society, and…we want to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.”

A third point of agreement: “We think that the current jail is not able to be renovated in a way that will meet that standard of care, with the types of services that the commissioners want to offer and that the sheriff would like to offer.”

As an additional point of agreement, Stafford gave the following division of labor: “If we build a new facility,…the commissioners are in charge of the number of beds, …the [county] council decides whether to approve funding, and…the judges decide whether to send people there.”

Stafford also said she thinks those at the committee table are in agreement that a new jail facility should be located as close to services in the downtown area as possible. Stafford put it like this: “My personal way of looking at that is, if an inmate, after release, can walk to Centerstone or Shalom Center, then I feel better about our location.”

Stafford wrapped up by saying, “I think that we all have a lot more common ground than we think.”

During public comment, which came towards the start of the committee meeting, but after Stafford’s remarks, Lynne Coyne—who has served Indiana University in various high-level roles and as a member of several public boards—delivered the kind of criticism that others had also previously made.

About the Jan. 9 committee meeting, Coyne said, “I was stunned by the petty political bickering and infighting of the committee members. Such behavior was far below the standard that I and taxpayers of this county deserve.”

Coyne made the same criticism of the committee’s Jan. 23 meeting—except for the presentation from the sheriff about conditions inside the jail. Coyne said, “After watching your meetings, it seems to me that this committee is more concerned with posturing and politics, than substantive, serious deliberation.”

One of the recurring themes at committee meetings is the obligation that is owed to the roughly 200 inmates who are currently incarcerated at the Monroe County jail. That theme was brought into sharp focus at the previous meeting, when sheriff Ruben Marté and his team presented a slide deck showing in graphic detail some of the current conditions, which they are trying to address.

It’s a theme that former deputy mayor and current candidate for Bloomington mayor Don Griffin stressed at the start of his public commentary turn. Griffin said, “A new jail for Monroe County is several years away—which is why we absolutely cannot wait to address issues within our current jail, as well as community issues that result in people going into the jail.”

Griffin continued, “Planning for a new future local jail should not hold up investing in the daily lives of people currently in the jail, as well as public health and restorative justice now.”

Also mentioning the current jail population during public comment time was public engagement director for the city of Bloomington, Kaisa Goodman: “I want to reiterate that we must keep our focus on public health, both in the immediate sense for folks who are currently incarcerated, and also as we plan for the future of justice and justice reform in our community.”

Like Stafford, Goodman made a pitch for locating a new facility as close to downtown Bloomington as possible. Goodman said, “It is also critical to effective justice reform that any new jail be located close to downtown Bloomington for reasons including visibility and integration in our community, access to transportation, access to resources and services, economic impact, and more.”

County commissioner Julie Thomas indicated that she and the other two commissioners had talked about the fact that they should provide what they see as a “roadmap” for the committee that is “very specific with tasks and goals.”

But right now, Thomas said the commissioners were in a kind of “holding pattern” as they were trying to schedule a time for ACLU lawyer Ken Falk to address the committee about the current jail facility. It was a prior lawsuit filed by the ACLU that has put pressure on Monroe County to address conditions at the jail.

On Monday, two students at Indiana University’s Mauer School of Law—Abby Akrong and Beka Schwartz—delivered public commentary and distributed a memo which laid out a case for the idea that the federal government could not force Monroe County to build a new jail.

At Monday’s meeting, deputy prosecutor April Wilson asked the commissioners to share with the committee the tasks and goals that Thomas described. “I’m kind of hearing that some decisions have already been made,” Wilson said. So Wilson wanted to know what decisions the commissioners have already made.

Githens said she would not call them “decisions.” She said, “They’re more of our goals and our dreams and our understanding of what needs to be happening.”

Wilson replied: “I would be open to hearing them.” Wilson said about some previous agenda suggestions that she had made: “It seems like they don’t fit into those goals and dreams.”

Wilson had previously asked that a discussion of land available for locating a new jail be put on a meeting agenda. “I’m also trying to move us forward,” Wilson said, adding, “So maybe you could just share that roadmap with us.”

Towards the end of Monday’s meeting, Stafford owned the fact that the committee had not made as much progress as expected: “Our committee has validly faced some criticism for not moving forward.” But Stafford added, “I think we’re all here on the same page wanting to move forward.”

Stafford requested that the commissioners share the square footage requirements for the new jail, because she thinks that will help move things forward. Stafford said, “I would like that square footage number.”

The possibility of locating a new jail facility near downtown, within walking distance of services, is a likely point of future dispute.

When the rezone request for the proposed Fullerton Pike location was made last year, commissioners told the Bloomington city council and the plan commission that it was the only viable site they’d found inside the city limits. The second and third choices are both outside the city limits.

When the zoning request was rejected by the Bloomington city council late last year, that meant the county commissioners had two options: revisit the question of a land search inside the city of Bloomington; or else propose a site they’d already identified—one outside the city limits.

For this Wednesday’s work session held by county commissioners, a land search was not on the agenda. But at the end of the work session,  county attorney Jeff Cockerill touched base with commissioners to ask for authorization, to reach out to the city of Bloomington about the availability of land for a jail facility within the city limits.

Cockerill said that he wanted to ask specifically about the availability of land in the Hopewell neighborhood, which is the site of the former IU Health hospital at 2nd and Rogers streets, and any other land the city has control of.

Commissioner Lee Jones responded to Cockerill by saying, “Yeah, I think it’s good to make sure that we have thoroughly vetted the city for a possible location—keeping in mind that the location does have to meet our needs and fall within our budget in various different things like that.”

President of the board of commissioners, Penny Githens, gave Cockerill the confirmation he was looking for: “I appreciate your reaching out.”

Photos: Community justice response committee (Feb. 6, 2023)

3 thoughts on “Jail committee tries to turn page on infighting: “Talking more is always a good antidote to talking less or talking crosswise.”

  1. I’m sorry but I reject the notion that a jail should be be in downtown Bloomington. This is more about a nostalgic view of the “court house square” than a modern view of “access to justice.”

  2. The jail needs to be where poor people can easily access it since that is mostly, maybe almost exclusively, who we lock up. I am sorry, John, but I absolutely reject your notion about nostalgia being a factor. Where the heck would you put it? And how would poor people get there? Like nursing homes, if nobody visits, there is no accountability. Which makes me wonder how we have only heard about jail conditions from the new sheriff rather than from a newspaper reporter . . . . Wish I could cc the HT editor on this

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