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Reflections on the No More Jails Campaign in Champaign County, Illinois

When we began our campaign to stop jail construction in Champaign County, Illinois in early 2012, I thought we were doomed. The grand plan to spend $20 million on this project seemed like a done deal. The Sheriff was driving the initiative; the leading lights in the County Board seemed to think jail construction was the only prudent course. Yet, nearly two years later, we have a very different scenario. The 2014 budget for Champaign County doesn’t include a single cent for jail construction. In fact, the county has allocated more than $200,000 in new money for social programs aimed at keeping people out of jail. In a county of slightly more than 200,000 residents, this is an important start.

How did this happen? The answer is simple – a campaign of ordinary people, led by a core group from Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ), turned the situation around. This campaign is proof that action by people at the grassroots level can make a difference.

Here I want to briefly reflect on the key measures we took to make our campaign a success. But I also want to issue a word of warning: The campaign is not yet over. We are actually just beginning a much longer and more complicated process of changing the criminal legal system in this county from the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach that has dominated not only Champaign County but much of the country for the last three decades.

Background to No More Jails

Champaign County has two jails, one in downtown Urbana and another at Brookens
in East Urbana. The impetus for the proposed jail expansion came from the supposed deterioration of the downtown facility, built in 1980. By 2012, local officials as well as an inspection team from the National Institute of Corrections declared that the downtown jail was in “deplorable” condition, actually beyond repair. They wanted to close it down and bring in the construction crews.

As noted above, in those early days they seemed destined to get their way. The sole voice in opposition was Board member and CUCPJ leader Carol Ammons, now an Urbana City Council member. Gradually a core of us rallied around her and formed what would ultimately be “No More Jails.” Our foundation was the decade of work CUCPJ had done on social justice issues, particularly focusing on race and the criminal legal system. CUCPJ’s campaigns against the use of Tasers by police, for jail phone justice and the mobilizations in response to the police killing of African-American youth Kiwane Carrington in 2009 formed a core of awareness and experience on which we could build.

Another precursor was a reading group based on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, in which many of us participated. Engaging with Michelle’s book helped us to see the plans for new jail cells in our county as the local face of the racialized mass incarceration that she described so vividly. We wanted no part of it. We began to meet regularly and attend the County Board meetings. Our journey had begun.

Keys to Success

Number One:
Standing Firm on the Basics

As I look back, I think there were five main reasons we managed to gain some measure of success. First, and most importantly, we stood firm on two principles: no new jail cells and the need for community participation in decision-making. When Board members and law enforcement came with explanations about how we needed a jail to protect the people inside, how we needed it because women and the mentally ill deserved better facilities, how having one jail instead of two would save the county money, we refused to budge. We correctly identified the key issue – the priority was to spend more money on ways to keep people out of jail, not ways to make people more comfortable inside their cells or make the system run more smoothly. We were also adamant that this process should be public. We were confident that few people in our county really wanted to spend their tax dollars on jail cells. Our views were borne out: through the entire time of the campaign not a single person ever came to the County Board to speak in favor of building the jail.

Number Two: Adapting to Change

Though we stood firm, we recognized that as the campaign progressed, the terrain changed. We began by attending Board meetings on a weekly basis and making presentations during public participation. Though we got a chilly reception at first, after a while some County Board members began to listen. We responded to their newfound openness to dialog and altered our tactics. Instead of opposing their every move, we found ways to work with them to shape the debate and decision-making process.

As a result, instead of hiring an architect and a construction firm, the county decided to contract a consultant to do a needs assessment – not only of the jail building issue, but of the criminal justice system as a whole. We then studied the firms that applied for the consultancy and advocated for the one we thought would be most likely to support an alternative course. When our favorite was selected, we connected with their director. We organized public meetings for him to dialog with local residents. We communicated with him individually, lobbying for our alternative vision to inform his report. We assisted him where possible in gathering information and in getting a better understanding of how the local system worked. In the end, he wrote a report which put jail building on the back burner and prioritized the kinds of alternatives to incarceration which we had been advocating all along. Our engagement with his work and his willingness to open the door to our ideas was crucial in influencing the County Board’s final decisions.

We also pushed for another process, one that involved more public participation in the decision-making. This resulted in the Board setting up a Community Justice Task Force to develop proposals for alternatives to incarceration. Two CUCPJ members ended up on the Task Force and played a leading role in its operations and its lengthy final report of June 2013.

Once these processes got under way, we developed working relationships with various board members. We identified our allies and those that were undecided, and held one-on-one meetings with them to discuss relevant issues. Gradually we made our dedication and knowledge apparent to them. Several members who were hostile to us initially began to listen.

Number Three:
Research, Research, Research

We did our homework and became the experts on the issue. We spent hours building a profile of who was incarcerated in our county – demonstrating that our jail’s cells were teeming with people who didn’t belong there – those with traffic tickets, mental illness, substance abuse problems, women with non-violent charges. Most importantly, we identified the seriousness of the racial disparity in our jail population. We found that consistently more than half those in the jail were African-American in a county with a 13% Black population. This was a key point in exposing the pitfalls of building new jail cells – that ultimately they would end up caging more Black youth. We also uncovered the ways in which incarceration specifically impacted women in the jail, contributing to the separation of families and facilitating the unnecessary loss of child custody among parents in the jail population. All of this served to expose the irrationality of mass incarceration at the ground level.

We added a financial dimension to our research as well, uncovering how the county was spending taxpayers’ money and emphasizing the need to reallocate more of the $4.6 million collected every year in Public Safety Sales Tax. At the time, the county was spending 95% of that money on bond repayment for criminal justice construction and support for law enforcement. In pressing for a change in the allocation of these revenues, we encouraged a new framing of the idea of public safety. For us and for much of the community, public safety was about ensuring people’s access to healthcare, housing, employment, education and treatment, not simply increasing the number of police and jail cells.

Besides analyzing the local situation, we researched trends and successful changes in other communities across the country and brought them into our criminal justice debate. We spoke about prison closures in New York, the blocking of a jail construction plan in Bloomington, Indiana and a re-entry program in Richmond, California. This helped Board members realize that they would not be alone if they opted for changes.

Number Four:
Network, Network, Network

We sought allies. We formed alliances with constituencies who would be affected by new jail cells. Groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the local Immigration Forum played a vital role in convincing Board members that opposition to jail construction wasn’t just coming from a small cohort of “fringe elements” in the community. Other local organizations from various quarters added their own contribution to the campaign along the way: the ACLU; Against War, Racism and Exploitation (AWARE); the Campus Labor Coalition; Citizens with Conviction; the Friends Meeting; the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO); the League of Women Voters; the Ministerial Alliance; the NAACP; New Covenant; the North End Breakfast Club and the Planners’ Network.

We further broadened our base by reaching out to the general public through door-to-door surveys, petitions, online appeals, building a social media presence and database, tabling at events like the Farmers’ Market and C-U Days, holding public forums on key issues and using the airwaves of our local community radio station WEFT, especially the Saturday morning “Higher Ground” segment. One of our biggest successes was linking up with a local theater co-op to stage a showing of the anti-Drug War film, The House I Live In. We filled the theater to capacity – more than 300 people, including three County Board members, and used the opportunity to inform people about our campaign.

We also extended our networks beyond Champaign County, connecting with other groups in other parts of the country who had organized campaigns similar to ours and sharing experiences. These links were enhanced by joining Nation Inside, a national social media network focused on criminal justice issues. Their support gave us national exposure as well as a web-based platform to post messages, videos and other information about our work.

We used these connections to engineer a big final push as the time drew near for the County Board to vote on their next steps. We contacted our friends in academia and professional circles and got them to email, phone or meet face-to-face with their Board members. We upgraded our database and did phone banking to bring people out to Board meetings and mobilize them to communicate with their Board members. We printed lime green t-shirts with “Build Programs Not Jails” on the front and wore them en masse to Board meetings. We bombarded the Board Chair and the Chair of Finance with hundreds of postcards signed by our supporters made from lime green card stock, urging them to vote for alternatives to jail construction. We mobilized high-profile national campaigners like Michelle Alexander to sign onto a letter to the County Board praising their efforts to consider alternatives and urging them to stay away from further jail construction.

Number Five: Mass Incarceration
is Always About Race

We kept the issue of racial disparity at the center of our campaign. We found new ways to repeat a message that many Board members, law enforcement gatekeepers and much of the public simply did not want to hear – that we had a problem of racial profiling in our criminal justice system that required serious action, and building jail cells was only going to make it worse. We made sure that the Board knew this issue was not going to go away.

Next Steps

These are some of the reasons why
we were able to stop the construction of jail cells. I wish I could say that we can now rest on our laurels, that the battle is over and our county is inevitably headed down a new path. But social change doesn’t work like that. It is an uneven process.

Already elements in the judiciary are pushing back – refusing to implement some of the recommendations of the needs assessment consultant and the Community Justice Task Force. No doubt as some of the new programs experience growing pains, others will want to turn the clock back and return to the old ways. We need to remain mobilized to make sure this doesn’t happen. We have accomplished a lot in this campaign, but we have only just begun the journey to change how criminal justice operates in our county. Moreover, we have to push harder to move more resources across to housing, job creation, mental health and family support in order to eradicate poverty and rebuild the communities that have been torn apart by mass incarceration. There is still a long way to travel.

This article was originally published by Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (; it is reprinted with permission of the author.

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