Left Justified: Is there a humane way to imprison people?

I remember voting for the county jail referendum. In fact, I had convinced my Rockford Urban Ministries Council (for which I work) to endorse expansion of the Winnebago County facility and institute new programs that would keep the jail population down.

I caught a bit of flak for that, not only from this newspaper, but also from some anti-tax and “not in my back yard” residents. But I truly believe, especially after taking a tour of the jail, that it is in dire need of upgrading. The overcrowded concrete and steel 1970s facility was way inadequate, not only for the booming inmate population but also for the safety of the officers and staff who work there.

I also saw how the Reachout Jail Ministry of Pastor Sowell is changing people’s lives and yet needs a lot more space. And finally, since the majority of people are awaiting trial, any improvement in the court facilities would be a big improvement.

One of the Winnebago County Jail tours took me through their holding cell that was crowded with folks waiting for their day in court. The 30 foot by 40 foot room was lined with cots. Most of the people were sitting or standing, and when we walked in, there was almost no place to move.

Our guide indicated that these folks had just committed minor offenses, but for some reason, they could not or had not bailed out. Remember, the county has to pay for their food as well as securely lodge all these folks. The county is also responsible for their health and safekeeping. God forbid that someone arrested for a traffic charge should end up in the morgue.

I’m sad to see area contractors using their political connections to get a piece of the multi-million dollar construction tab. It’s too bad such a large construction project couldn’t placate most, if not all, the area’s workers. We also know the last jail had problems with the construction, and it’s unfortunate we have to pay extra for oversight to make sure the bidders do what they bid on. And you’d think the county board would have finalized the site selection by now, and started purchasing the land, instead of finding other places.

But money is being collected, and at least the county board could increase the programs and staff members in hopes of cutting the number of inmates. There’s lots of good ideas, and the time to implement them is yesterday.

Rockford Urban Ministries will host a public meeting with Sheriff Richard Meyers on Thursday, Oct. 23, 7 p.m., at First Presbyterian Church, 406 N. Main St. (across from Beattie Park). I’m sure the sheriff will bring some staff with him to answer most, if not all, the questions. We pray for an exceptional facility, one that will turn people away from crime and make the community a better place.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

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