Originally posted August 15, 2018
Last night Vigo County Sheriff Greg Ewing stood before the County Council and presented newspaper articles from 1980 when an 80 bed jail was built, and 2001 when a 270 bed jail was built. He did this, not to prove how broken our justice system is, but to persuade our community to build a new 530 bed jail. All in all that’s over a 650% increase in the number of beds that our county needs to house inmates in just the past forty years. He went on to state that the inmates in our jail are ignorant, lazy, and worthless. In his defense he did try to use “politically correct” language to convey his contempt choosing “uneducated” instead of ignorant, “unmotivated” instead of lazy, and “unskilled” instead of worthless. To top it off he claimed that no one opposing the jail understood what he and his officers have to deal with in our city, and none of them knew what it was like to have to bury a fallen “brother in blue.” Unfortunately using Brent Long and Rob Pitts deaths has become an all to common defense against anyone questioning the policies of our local law enforcement agencies. Not only were these tactics shameful, they were also inaccurate.
Some of those who oppose the jail have had to bury fallen brothers. Many protesters have mentored youth who have parents in jail, and had come to the meeting in order to speak for them and their incarcerated parents. The kids in our city have experienced what Ewing described as, “drug addicts screaming and fighting at 2 am,” but unlike his officers they don’t get to come into the home after the fight has started and then leave when it has ended. These kids either have to stay in the home, or be pulled out and placed in foster care, and more and more of them are facing these circumstances each and every day. As Rose Hulman economist Kevin Crist stated, “if we are going to spend this much money on a jail, we might as well build a hallway straight from the schools to the front door.” This statement reflects the tragic reality that over 70% of kids with one or more parents who have been incarcerated will end up behind bars at some point in their life.
Mark Twain once said that there are three kinds of lies, “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” He said this because statistics can easily be manipulated to fit whatever point someone is trying to make, but the incarceration statistics in our country cannot be manipulated. Since the 1970’s the US prison population has gone up almost 1,000% and as I stated earlier, our local jail population has and is projected to increase by a similar amount. Continuing to spend millions of dollars to build bigger jails is not a solution to the problem. We are constantly wasting our county resources to house more inmates rather than devoting our time, energy, and money towards reversing the decades long national trend of skyrocketing incarceration. I applaud Chief Deputy Prosecutor Rob Robertson for his efforts to communicate the county’s past and current attempts at staffing and funding rehabilitation programs, but there is a program in the works that, with the proper funding (which is unlikely now), could have drastically reduced our jail population.
The program involves a process called Medically Assisted Treatment or MAT. The patients at our local drug rehabilitation facilities don’t have access to prescription drugs, including drug alternatives and mental health medications, because the facilities don’t have the funding to staff on site pharmacies. As many studies have shown this drastically reduces the likelihood of recovery. The vast majority of people in our culture realize that the increase in prison and jail populations occurred around the same time that the drug epidemic began. Most people also acknowledge that this epidemic hit poor and minority communities the hardest. Pastor Dwayne Malone passionately spoke about the terrible injustice it is that African Americans in our community make up 9% of our county population, but 40% of our jail population. Unfortunately there are still racial biases that tempt us to blame this discrepancy on “lack of motivation, education, and skill,” but we know that is simply not the case.
This fight is not over. There are many more steps that must be taken before construction can be started on a new jail. These steps include actions by the Vigo County Commissioners and the Vigo County Council. I would strongly encourage you to research the candidates running for these offices and make sure that they are committed to opposing an oversized jail, that will prevent our county from spending the money that is absolutely necessary to invest in our local schools and drug rehabilitation facilities. Positive change for our city is not only possible it is highly probable. “Change will happen when the pain associated with the change becomes greater than the pain associated with the status quo,” and the people of Terre Haute have suffered too much for too long. It is time for a wind of change to sweep through our city, and you can help make it happen.