Some Reasons I am Voting No to a New Jail

Amanda Murphy, 5 November 2012  •  Comments

Some reasons I am voting no for the $46.8 million jail bond referendum on the Johnson County Ballot tomorrow (aka "Justice Center"):

"[Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism" (Angela Davis).
  1. A reevaluation of our definition of crime, our laws, and policies is needed before we say we need a bigger jail. If we change the criteria of who gets locked up and why, our current jail size is MORE than adequate, in terms of space.

  2. Our jail and prison system in the United States of America perpetuates discrimination against people of color, queers, drug addicts, mentally ill, poor people, immigrants. Adding more jail space does nothing to address this. Here are some local examples in our own county jail:

    • In Johnson County, about 38 percent of the average daily inmate population was black during a recent review. Only 5 percent of Johnson County’s population is black (the Gazette 11/4/12).
    • About 23 percent of the people booked into the jail in fiscal year 2012 were black, but 41 percent of the inmates held longer than a week were black, and that skews the average daily number, Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said (the Gazette 11/4/12).
    • Over a mere three years, the Johnson County Drug Task Force achieved a 100 percent increase in arrests for non-violent drug offenses — mostly marijuana (quote from Jeff Cox letter to editor in the Press Citizen 11/1/12).
    • Approximately 60 percent of the jail’s population includes people who will only stay there for 24 hours or fewer (the Daily Iowan 11/1/12).

    And some national examples:

    • On any given day, 30% of African-American males aged 20 to 29 are "under correctional supervision" (Paul Street).
    • The U.S. incarcerates more people than any country in the world – both per capita and in terms of total people behind bars. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it has almost 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population (
    • There is a hugely disproportionate imprisonment of minority men and the enormity of the U.S.’s current prison population of 2.3 million inmates, a number that reflects a 500% increase during the past 30 years (Sentencing Project).
  3. The "War on Drugs" is criminalizing a health and social issue. Adding more jail space allows these policies to continue. And these are a few national examples:

    • According to one study released in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Justice, nationally, 88 percent of the increase in jail population is because of "low-risk" inmates, or inmates not accused of violent crimes, especially drug- and alcohol-related violations (the Daily Iowan, 11/1/12).
    • Blacks are far more likely to be arrested and convicted for drug crimes even though both blacks and whites use and sell drugs at almost identical rates (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow).
    • Today, there are more people behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses than were incarcerated for all crimes, violent or otherwise, in 1970. To return to the nation’s incarceration rates of 1970, America would have to release 4 out of every 5 currently held prisoners (
  4. Our spending priorities are skewed. Let's spend more of our tax money on ways to empower and nurture our fellow human beings, such as education, health care (including treatment for addiction and mental health facilities), libraries, than to continue to lock people away from society at skyrocketing rates.

  5. We haven't been given figures in the bond referendum for the costs to staff and maintain larger facilities, both for the new jail and the remodeled courthouse. And the bond amount is non-binding.

    • There isn't enough funding to staff the courtrooms currently. Unless more money is spent on judge and staff salaries, it won’t matter if there are extra courtrooms in our courthouse.
    • Let's make sure the government funding will be there before we build courtrooms to sit empty.
  6. It costs a lot less to put someone in treatment or on probation than to imprison them and the results tend to be better.

    • There's this nifty Iowa study that shows that it costs about 1/2 as much to put a prisoner through an in-jail treatment program, rather than send them to prison, which may seem like a good reason to build a bigger jail.
    • But why put the non-violent addicts in jail at all? Sent addicts to treatment facilities, not jail. Maybe we should be thinking about building and funding more treatment facilities instead.
    • It also costs about 1/20th to have someone on probation rather than locked up.
    • Currently, Johnson county annually spends only about $169,000 on programs such as the Mid-Eastern Council for Chemical Abuse (MECCA), the Health Division program, and the work-release program.
    • Here's another good document with some alternatives Johnson County has looked at, which says we need more jail space to make this happen. How about just more space in a building that could truly be considered a Justice Center, not a jail?
  7. What our elected officials spend public funds should be reflective of what our society values. Locking people up for unjust reasons is not what I value.

  8. Prisoners in Johnson County Jail don't deserve to be in the overcrowded conditions they are in. Jail is not the best place for most people. When we quit putting people in jail, they will quit being overcrowded. Some cities/counties/municipalities have actually been closing some of their jails because of changing their policies (mostly decriminalizing or de-prioritizing drug offenses).

  9. The courthouse SHOULD be accessible to all. Remodel what is needed to make that happen. This doesn't require a $46.8 million bond referendum to do so.

  10. We need to task our officials with treating this issue holistically. That doesn't seem to be happening, according to an article in The Gazette that states, "[Pulkrabek] and other justice center supporters agree that the issue [disproportionate jailing of minorities] should be addressed, but they argue that's separate from the jail and courthouse needs. Voting against the bond issue because of the racial disparity "is a protest vote," Pulkrabek said. "A 'no' vote is not going to fix that situation" (the Gazette 11/4/12) AND THEY THINK VOTING "YES" WILL?!?!?!?

  11. Financial disparities: Many people stay in jail awaiting trail because they can not afford the bail to get out in the meantime. If you have money you are ok to be freed, but if you do not, you should stay in jail?

  12. Some alternatives (ie, REFORM) to try before resorting to a larger jail:

    • working for social, political, and economic justice (instead of capitalist notions of in"justice" that foster inequities)
    • civil citations
    • community service
    • treatment
    • work release
    • probation
    • drug court
    • expediting cases in court
    • decriminalize drug use/possession
    • make education our #1 priority to spend our dollars on
    • make holistic health care a priority (including mental health, substance abuse, women's health and freedom, looking at nutrition as a way to keep us out of the doctor's offices, etc)
  13. I would rather work to ABOLISH the Prison Industrial Complex. Let's scrap it and start over. Together.

Amanda Murphy