“Look, you need a new prison. Everyone knows that.” – The B-Square

The headliner on the agenda for Monday’s meeting of the Monroe County Community Justice Response Committee (CJRC) was Ken Falk, the legal director of the Indiana ACLU.

Falk is the attorney who filed a lawsuit against the county in 2008, which is still the subject of a “private” settlement agreement — so called because it’s not a court order. The agreement is not confidential.

Falk’s comments contradicted calls the committee had heard from several quarters, including the Care Not Cages group, against building a new prison.

Falk was blunt: “Look, you need a new prison. Everyone knows that.” He continued, “In 2008, when I filed the lawsuit, everyone knew that the prison was completely overcrowded at the time.” The Monroe County jail isn’t overly overcrowded now, he said, “thanks to work the judges and everyone else in the system”.

Falk also noted that the work of two counselors who were released to county government more than 18 months ago had described the Monroe County jail as “well past its structural and functional life cycle.”

But Falk’s comments came as no real surprise.

Less expected was the indication of some friction between the new Monroe County Sheriff, Ruben Marté, and the county commissioners, which until now had at least partially remained beneath the surface. The contentious nature of their interactions was evident at Monday’s CJRC meeting.

The President of the Board of Commissioners, Penny Githens, made some opening remarks focusing on the division of legal responsibilities between the Commissioners and the Sheriff and the workings of the budget process.

The description Githens gave of the differences between the statutory responsibilities between sheriff and commissioners reflects the work currently being done by county attorneys to write the job description for a new position that the sheriff is requesting. The new position would be called “prison technician”. The new position would take care of prison maintenance.

Githens’ opening remarks included a description of current conditions in prison and the attempts that had been made to address the conditions Marté had identified when he took office earlier in the year.

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Githens tried to counter allegations from various quarters that the commissioners had stood in the way of improving conditions and failed to support the sheriff’s efforts.

Shortly after Githens concluded, Marté said he would not address everything Githens just said. He added, “But I can tell you that a lot of the things that have been said are not true.”

A point emphasized by Marté was that he had actually reached out to the commissioners to ask for equipment to clean and disinfect the prison. Marté was embarrassed going to another county to borrow their cleaning equipment, he said.

When Githens interrupted Marté to remind him of her earlier remarks about the district council’s appropriate budgetary role compared to the commissioners, Marté pointed out that he had not interrupted Githens during her remarks.

Monroe County District Court Judge Catherine Stafford interjected, “I can’t agree that the commissioners can say anything and he can’t answer.”

Githen’s answer to Marté: “Four weeks ago you had to say a lot!”

The reference to “four weeks ago” was a reference to a slide deck presentation that Marté’s team had submitted to the committee that showed photos of the poor prison conditions.

At Monday’s session, Marté declined to use the word “aesthetics” to characterize the cleaning and sanitation of prison floors. “When I hear the word ‘aesthetics’ there is nothing aesthetic.”

Marté continued: “And if you think so, I will welcome you to come back to prison. And I will personally guide you through the current living conditions in this place.”

Githens countered, “I didn’t use the word ‘aesthetic’.” Marté replied, “You didn’t…but you know who did it.”

The use of the word “aesthetics” came up at the Commissioners’ working session on February 1st. County Commissioner Julie Thomas responded to a description of the work of sanding the top layer of dirt and adhesive off the concrete floor and then coating it with epoxy sealer: “It sounds like the floor issue is really an aesthetic issue and not a health and safety issue.”

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Thomas added, “And that’s an issue that we need to think about, because if we replace this facility, how much do we want to invest in an aesthetic change?”

Falk’s Monday remarks didn’t just serve to support the idea that a new prison is needed.

Falk’s comments also reinforced the district commissioners’ position on the siting of a new facility. Commissioners are considering possible new prison sites outside of downtown Bloomington.

Among the other committee members, including judges and representatives from the prosecutor’s office and the public defender’s office, there is a strong belief that the new prison should be as close to downtown as possible.

A modern prison design has no more than one story, Falk said. “A prison shouldn’t have elevators. A prison should be on one level if possible,” he said.

To find enough land to build a new single-level prison building, Falk continued, “you may have to be in an area outside of Bloomington.” Late last year, Bloomington City Council rejected a motion to rezon 87 acres the southern tip of the city, which the commissioners wanted to use for the location of a new prison.

At the February 8 working session, District Attorney Jeff Cockerill contacted the district commissioners to request permission to contact the City of Bloomington regarding the availability of land for a prison facility within the city limits.

Cockerill said he specifically wanted to ask about the availability of land in the Hopewell neighborhood, where the former IU Health Hospital is located at 2nd Street and Rogers Street, and any other land the city controls.

Commissioners gave Cockerill this approval.

At this Monday’s CJRC meeting, Kaisa Goodman, Bloomington’s Director of Public Engagement, read aloud part of Mayor John Hamilton’s email reply to Cockerill:

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The short answer is: I would be happy to sit down anytime to discuss all facets of the prison project, including possible locations. Hopewell’s website itself is not a good option. The 24 acres have been the subject of extensive community planning in recent years, including a detailed master plan that was completed in 2021, with a primary focus on hundreds of affordable housing units. We would be happy to discuss any ideas we might come up with in an appropriate setting.

At Monday’s CJRC meeting, Goodman also addressed what she described as “mischaracterizing a conversation” the mayor, some borough council members and Commissioner Githens attended about state-owned land in the town near Catalent, located south of Adams lies, participated road ends.

When Goodman began to describe the conversation, Githens disagreed, saying that Goodman was not even present. Goodman continued, saying the mayor has indicated the city is willing to work together to address the additional infrastructure needed.

Githens said of the location near Catalent, “I asked the mayor if the city would modernize Adams Street to allow for better access to land holdings near Catalent. And he said no.”

Earlier in the meeting, before Goodman spoke, District Councilwoman Kate Wiltz also commented on the conversation about the Catalent site and said she had heard differently. Wiltz told Githens, “I don’t think I heard exactly the same response as you did in our conversation about Adams Street.”

Wiltz continued, “I’ve heard the city probably doesn’t want to step in and pay for all the infrastructure needed with a new prison. But I didn’t hear the door close on that conversation.”

Wiltz added, “And I think it’s worth continuing discussions with our citymates about this idea, as well as any others they might have, to find a suitable site.”

Photos: CJRC meeting (February 20, 2023)