During the Vanderburgh County Jail Blue Ribbon Committee meeting on April 2, various groups and individuals spoke out against increasing the jail's capacity and continuing to criminalize and incarcerate people in the county.
A member of Evansville Letters to Prisoners (ELTP) pointed out racial and class disparities between the members of the jail committee and those they are incarcerating. The speaker highlighted ways in which the committee members spoke about prisoners, including referring to prisoners covering fluorescent lights above their beds while they slept as "vandalism." The ELTP representative read an excerpt from a letter from a local inmate and mentioned conversations with locals about the fluorescent lights at the Vanderburgh County jail and their strategies for dimming them. "People talk about taking stickers off deodorant, taping books up to the lights, and things like that, and I think that's a sign of resilience and creativity and how strong humans are, rather than just a problem of vandalism or people not being compliant...I think it makes a lot of sense that inmates wouldn't want a fluorescent light above their bed while they are trying to sleep."
Rather than fixing "little things" in increasing the capacity of the jail, the ELTP representative said now is an opportune time "to look to abolitionist strategies." "Abolition," according to the group Critical Resistance, is "a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment."
A representative from Evansville Harm Reduction trained by the Indiana Recovery Alliance argued that the city's "hard-hearted" response to the opioid epidemic accelerates both opioid use and incarceration. The speaker noted that the mayor's Substance Abuse Task Force has "more law enforcement agencies than medical specialists and current or former drug users."
"Abstinence-only" approaches like that of the city's are consistently shown to "exclude the participation of most opioid users," they said, citing a 2018 study from Johns Hopkins researchers that found only 18% of opioid users in need of treatment were reached by police and forced-rehabilitation methods in 2014 while harm reduction techniques such as needle exchanges "greatly lowered" overdoses, fatalities, and arrests.¹ If applied locally, the speaker argued harm reduction might alleviate the jail's overcrowding problem. They called for "needle exchanges, free city-wide Narcan distribution, education on unsafe needle practices, less neighborhood criminalization, and safe-use sites."
The harm reduction speaker also mentioned California's federally mandated mass release of 33,000 prisoners starting in 2011 after some incarceration facilities had reached 300% capacity. According to a 2016 study published by the American Society of Criminology, "An astounding 17% reduction in the size of the California prison population, which occurred over just 15 months, had no effect on aggregate rates of violent or property crime."²
Another individual at the committee meeting pointed out that in some communities, community bond funds "help bond out people who can't afford to" and lower jail populations. In Vanderburgh County, about 80% of the people in jail are pre-trial detainees. However, according to this individual, a major obstacle to setting up a bond fund in Vanderburgh County is that here courts have the policy of always seizing bonds for fines following trial, regardless of who posted it. In other places, community bond funds "can function because they'll get that money back and that fee is then required from the person as they participate in the court system."
Other places--such as the city of Chicago and the state of New Jersey--have eliminated cash bond, which the individual indicated might be a solution to the overcrowding issue: "I'm sure you're talking about a huge proportion of people not in jail, not even for 19 days," the average length of stay at the Vanderburgh County jail, "if they didn't have to post a cash bond." The individual also brought up mediation as a possible alternative to incarceration.
A final speaker spoke about the "othering," "disrespectful," and "problematic" language used by committee members during the meeting. "When you treat people like criminals, they are going to continue to act like criminals. I think continuing to lock people up is not going to solve the problem." They asked instead for "compassionate" responses.
This was the third meeting of the Vanderburgh County Jail Blue Ribbon Committee, which formed after the Vanderburgh County Detention Center received six code violations in October 2017 for overcrowding and understaffing. Although County Attorney Joseph Harrison said that he would draft a letter to the state explaining the county's plan to correct violations, which would then be voted on at the Board of County Commissioners meeting on April 17, the letter did not make the meeting's agenda. The deadline for the county to respond to the state is April 25; however, as of this writing, the county has neither announced their plan to correct the jail overcrowding problem nor shown transparency in what their decision-making process looks like.
1. Saloner, B., & Barry, C. L. (2018). Response to Pacula and Powell: Investing in harm reduction and alternatives to coerced treatment. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. doi: 10.1002/pam.22048
2. Sundt, J. , Salisbury, E. J. and Harmon, M. G. (2016). Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous? Criminology & Public Policy, 15: 315-341. doi:10.1111/1745-9133.12199