[by Gregory Johnson]

Anyone who has spoken with me over the past 30 years about the state of our justice system as it relates to incarceration, jails, prisons, and correctional institutions would accurately categorize me as a Prison Abolitionist or perhaps a Prison Reform Advocate.

Over the years, not much has changed with the state of incarceration nor my opinion about it. Last year I launched a Facebook page that now has a sister website called JusticeEquity.com where I promote ideas for reducing crime and incarceration.

When I was younger, I remember seeing a retirement community outside the Washington, D.C area and thinking, “Why don’t they make little communities like that instead of prisons. They could be sustainable, livable and enjoyable, but with a wall around to stop ‘bad‘ people from getting out.” I imagined business or industry in such a village that would make it financially profitable. That initial, somewhat naive, impression has developed, but remains much the same as my early thoughts on incarceration. It seems to me that a correctional facility should be an immersion experience where people are surrounded by what we know to bring about positive and healthy thoughts and behaviors. There should be art, music, food, clothing, pets, flowers, and anything else known to produce positive outcomes. Instead, what we have are cold institutions that might be condemned if they were used as animal shelters, but remain open because humans live there. In some ways, the prison industrial complex seems to be specifically designed to produce recidivism and make criminals worse – a theme explored in the University of Wisconsin Law Review article, “Is Prison Increasing Crime?” Since the time when I first envisioned a better ‘prison’ system, incarceration rates have gone up in the U.S. by about 400%, and there are a disproportionate number of minorities incarcerated. Something isn’t working with the current system.

I provide the above, for anyone wanting my general views on jails, prisons, and incarceration.

Last year, the incarceration crisis in the United States made it onto our radar in Iowa City when local county residents were asked to vote on a proposed Justice Center.

This ignited a broader conversation about incarceration reform, the War on Drugs, and justice system reform. I saw this as an opportunity to raise the volume on this very important public conversation. In September 2012, I joined with others nation-wide in promoting the film The House I Live In as well as telling people about the Jon Stewart interview with the producer Eugene Jarecki. In addition to promoting that film, I promoted a local showing of Broken on All Sides. I also helped raise awareness about a PBS documentary on the incarceration crisis.

Since I was first introduced to the idea of having a local Justice Center in our area, I’ve been in favor of it and have wanted to support it in any way I can.

Let me explain.

The only thing I hate more than jails is bad jails. Old jails with failing equipment. Double-bunked over-crowded retrofitted jails designed for 46 people but housing up to 92 inmates. Over-capacity jails that require shipping people away from family and services that might have reduce recidivism. That’s what we have right now in Johnson County. It’s everything I don’t like about jails (previously described) made even worse.

To the extent that the Justice Center is about jail expansion, we’ll end up with a better jail and an equal number of people incarcerated as we currently have — only, they will be incarcerated locally and the conditions of incarceration will improve.

However, over 60% of the cost for the Justice Center is for expanded courtrooms and other facilities that have the potential for offering better services to inmates, as well as better conditions for employees and area residents. I believe the conditions and opportunities of the proposed Justice Center may help reduce recidivism rather than likely increasing it given our current situation.

Unlike some anti-incarceration folks, I don’t feel animosity toward law enforcement, correctional officers, judges, lawyers or anyone else serving in the justice system. Indeed, we have very competent people serving these roles in our county. I feel that partnerships with those involved in the justice system will produce better outcomes than the results produced by protests.

Some people see the May 7 vote as a choice between YES and NO. For me, it’s simply a choice between YES and YES. Yes, to building an adequate facility, and YES to addressing the incarceration crisis and racial disparity that has plagued our entire nation for decades.

Despite my views about incarceration, I believe we need to give credit where credit is due. The people in Johnson County involved in the justice system and related services are exceptional. The list of volunteers and other workers includes people from substance abuse recovery organizations like MECCA as well as students and faculty from the Legal Clinic at the University of Iowa College of Law.

We’re doing something right in Johnson County, and as someone wanting to reduce incarceration, I’d really like to reverse engineer our local justice system to find out what it is.

We have a jail originally sized for 46 inmates that would be adequate for a community of similar size in Iceland, but it would be too small and inadequate for communities of our size in 197 other countries. [source] Even with some expansion, in Johnson County we’re still ahead of over 100 countries in regard to incarceration rates.

If we could reproduce what is being done in Johnson County across the rest of the country and have incarceration rates equal to those of Johnson County, we’d drop from the worst country in the world, to about 98th place, and no longer be the country with the highest incarceration rate.

I’d like to see us keep our lead in Johnson County. I’d like to see us do even better. Part of achieving that success will be found in providing the needed infrastructure to meet our current demand.


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