Amid continued opposition from members of the public, the Community Justice Response Committee for Monroe County met again on Monday to move forward with plans for a new county jail. The committee was initially formed in May 2021 to review reports that described poor conditions in the jail and currently meets two times per month.
Built in 1986, the jail was described as having “far exceeded its structural and functional life cycle” in one of the consultant reports. Since then, there has been little movement on the push for a new jail, with the previous plan of building a jail in the southwest corner of the city failing to receive approval from the Bloomington City Council.
A key player in the opposition movement is local advocacy group Care Not Cages, which hosted a block party in front of the courthouse in advance of the meeting. The event recognized this week as the Week Against Mass Incarceration and hosted Jauston Huerta, the director of Forever On Course United in Solidarity Initiatives, as a speaker. FOCUS Initiatives is an Indiana-based organization that aims to help people transition out of prison life and re-enter society.
During his speech at the block party, Huerta expressed support for this legislative session’s Senate Bill 1, which would have mental health professionals dispatched to respond to a mental health crisis rather than police officers. Huerta said this bill would help prevent people from panicking and suddenly fleeing or fighting and help calm the situation instead of creating more problems.
“That’s what we have to get away from — the perpetuation of trauma,” Huerta, who has spent 15 years in prison himself due to nonviolent drug charges, said.
While Huerta was speaking, a few people across the street chanted “No new jail!” in support of the protest.
[Related: ‘It didn’t happen overnight’: Community demands humane treatment in county jail]
Like Care Not Cages, Huerta said he does not support a new jail for Monroe County. He said a new jail would create an opportunity for more incarceration.
“Because believe it or not, they’re gonna fill it,” he said.
Huerta also spoke during the public comment section of the meeting, where he said support from FOCUS Initiative helped him change his life after experiencing trauma and brutality in prison.
“Locking people up is not the answer. It only compounds and multiplies trauma,” he said.
Bloomington City Clerk Nicole Bolden, who spoke in her capacity as the president of the Monroe County Black Democratic Caucus, said during public comment that the two people of color on the CJRC — Sheriff Marté and Jennifer Crossley — had been repeatedly treated with disrespect.
She recalled seeing past instances of sighs, eye rolls and Marté and Crossley being cut off.
Her comments were echoed by several other commenters and were met with applause from the public.
Other members of the Bloomington community spoke during public comment to express a range of views.
Jim Shelton, government relations manager for the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, said the county needs a new jail, but emphasized the necessity of reducing the amount of people in jail struggling with mental illness or drug addiction.
Kaisa Goodman, the city’s public engagement director, asked the committee to involve the city council, the mayor’s administration and the Bloomington Police Department in conversations involving building a new jail and improving current jail conditions. She said the city wants a bigger focus on public health and immediate improvements to jail.
After the public comment section of the meeting, the county commissioners outlined their goals for a new jail. They described a desire for speedier judicial processing and treatment, reduced recidivism rates, no or low-cost transitional housing for people after release and programs for physical and mental health. They also emphasized a plan for a jail with more space, although they said they plan to house the same number of inmates and ultimately hope to reduce that number.
Specific suggestions included natural lighting, free phone calls and two courtrooms — one for processing and one for hearings.
[Related: Monroe County corrections officer fired after altercation with inmate]
The commissioners then introduced a plan for subcommittees for the CJRC labeled “facility,” “judicial process,” “treatment” and “case night for release/reentry.”
However, several members of the committee expressed concern that subcommittees would create obstacles for public participation. County councilors Peter Iversen and Crossley said they may support subcommittees if the entire committee continued to meet so the public could still give input.
Judge Catherine Stafford, a representative from the Board of Judges, said the committee needed to determine the number of beds the new jail would require before finding a location. She said that with increased efficiency involving county offices, the new jail could be built downtown, allowing recently released people close access to services like Centerstone, a facility for mental health and addiction, and Shalom Community Center, which is a day shelter.
Stafford also said it was important to have conversations with contractors with a plan for how many beds they wanted.
“The more we know what we want, the less we leave up to the decision of the person who gets paid more if we build more,” she said.