Schier urges jail construction moratorium

TRRT editor and publisher offers ideas on how to address jail overcrowding

Urging Winnebago County Board members to put the horse before the cart, Frank Schier, editor and publisher of The Rock River Times, presented his ideas on how to address issues concerning the county’s proposed $127 million, 1,212-bed jail.

Schier said at the Oct. 28 meeting of the County Board that the horse of alternatives to jail should have been implemented before deciding on how large of a jail to construct.

Schier argued the county failed to implement steps that would have immediately relieved jail overcrowding, which is the subject of a 2000 federal lawsuit that was filed by former inmate Timothy Chatmon. Schier said, “Chatmon wasn’t aware of and doesn’t agree with the stay of litigation, calling for building the jail.”

Schier urged board members to implement a two-year moratorium on building the jail and invest collected tax money into “horses” such as:

Two new judges

Additional district attorneys, public defenders and circuit clerk court staff

Ticket rather than incarcerate marijuana users

Postcard notification system for bench warrants

Expansion of personal recognizance bonds

Implementation of electronic monitoring, mental health court, drug court and day reporting programs.

Schier said these measures should have been implemented, and their effects assessed before the county decided on how large of a jail to build. He cited independent crime experts Dr. Mike Hazlett and Dr. Allen Beck as sources for his opinion. Schier said evidence supports cutting the planned number of jail beds from 988 to 500 beds.

Schier also stressed the “large and negative impact” the jail will have on Rockford, “especially in the River District.” He said a downtown business will move if the jail is built, but declined to identify the owner because the owner wished to remain anonymous.

He added that Rockford didn’t need the “baggage and garbage” that is associated with trying and incarcerating high-profile cases that involve state and federal prisoners. In the most extreme case, Rockford could be the site for trying and housing al-Qaeda-associated inmates, Schier said.

Board member Jim Hughes (D-11) asked why Schier thought “the jail was being overbuilt.” Schier responded that there was an emerging criminal justice-industrial complex on a national scale that is rewarding special interests and politicians at the expense of taxpayers and their affected communities.

Schier said the special interests and politicians receive money and power by constructing prisons and jails, regardless of whether they are needed. Communities and taxpayers are negatively affected by having to pay construction costs while providing a training ground for inmates to share criminal ideas that they will likely implement after being released into the community.

Board member Pete MacKay (R-5) asked whether Chatmon was planning any further legal action. Schier said Chatmon was looking for new representation because he wasn’t aware and didn’t approve of the agreement that called for constructing the jail, and left his issues unaddressed (see Sept. 29 article “Jail lawsuit plaintiff urges tax repeal”).

Schier argued that since Chatmon didn’t approve of the agreement that stayed the litigation, and that Chatmon’s lawsuit was used by community leaders as a tool to convince voters that the jail was necessary, the foundation about the size of the jail has been eroded. This realization warrants a moratorium on jail construction, Schier said.

MacKay followed up by asking why the county’s jail-bed forecasting was not valid or reliable. Schier said the size of the jail was suggested by Atlanta-based jail consultant Mark Goldman, who works for the jail’s architect, The Durrant Group, Inc. Schier alleged it was in Goldman’s economic interest to recommend building a large jail, and that Goldman was the only outside opinion the county solicited.

Schier concluded his presentation by saying Goldman states on his résumé that he oversaw the largest prison construction facility in the world.

After the meeting, Schier said: “Before we spend our taxpayers’ money to build a huge jail to rent out to everyone from surrounding counties to the feds, we need to get all the alternative programs going. Then we will know what size jail we need. But that would upset the pork barrel, wouldn’t it? Hopefully, taxpayers won’t put up with this stench. They should call every County Board member who voted “No” on Hugh’s motion on alternative programs and tell them to be responsible (see “Jail alternatives funding amendment fails” on page A8). Construction should be delayed for two years until we get a real handle on our needs.

“This is not a done deal if enough pressure is applied in the name of common sense,” Schier said.

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