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Metal bars, metal beds and benches, cement floors and harsh lighting make for a stark environment at the 50-year-old Greene County Jail, as seen here on a third-floor women’s block. County officials are seeking to replace the old jail with an updated and expanded facility. (Photo by Audrey Hackett)

Sankofa Talk — Fighting ’til the last day

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When I was asked to call a meeting to bring people together to talk about strategizing to defeat Issue 12, the jail tax levy on the March 17 primary election ballot, I must admit I was only vaguely aware of what to expect, as I tend to avoid political activities. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I had only scanned the excellently reported articles by YS News reporter Audrey Hackett on the process that led up to the tax levy being put on the ballot.

Also, subconsciously, I may have been trying to avoid being drawn into yet another social justice struggle, especially one that involved the criminal justice system. The last time I did that was in the fall of 2014, when John Crawford III, a 22-year-old African American man, was murdered by a Beavercreek police officer in the Beavercreek Walmart. It has been particularly grueling to witness over the years since the antics of the criminal justice officials to assure that no justice will be had for Crawford or his family, which included the two young sons he left behind. Mike DeWine was running for re-election for attorney general at the time, but I will mostly save my thoughts about that for another column.

We formed under the name “Greene County Citizens Against Giant Jail Tax.” First, I attended a hearing at the county commissioners’ office in November. The hearings were required in order to get the issue on the ballot. Sheriff Gene Fischer enthusiastically shared his proposal to build a 500-bed jail, having selected that option from several that were offered in the needs assessment completed by the firm HDR. Options ranged from as low as 324 beds to 560 beds. The 560 figure would fully utilize the current Adult Detention Center (236 capacity) and required building a new 324-bed jail. I noticed the county commissioners beaming in the background as the sheriff lauded the 500-bed proposal. The sheriff claimed he did not intend to fill up the huge jail. My left eyebrow automatically arched as it commonly does when something deep inside me — let’s call it a “doubt detector” — alerts.

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I remember once helping my oldest daughter move into a new apartment many years ago. To this day, I remember with stark clarity the wide-eyed glee on her face when she showed me her huge walk-in closet. It had a beautiful door and great lighting, but what really stood out was an entire wall that consisted of seemingly countless neatly squared compartments.

“I might put some shoes in there,” she said.

When I visited her a year later, all of those nice new compartments were filled with boxes of shoes and boots. This is what I believe will happen if a new big-box jail is built. I told this story at the hearing. People got a nice chuckle and, shortly after I spoke, the sheriff went back to the mic and assured those in attendance, predominantly Yellow Springers, that he had no intention of locking up 500 people. Pardon me if this sounds sexist, but give a fashion-conscious lady a new walk-in closet full of beckoning shoe compartments and see what happens.

I recognize here that I am likening a pair of shoes to people, but I once worked in the Clark County Jail in Springfield, providing chemical dependency assessments for incarcerated men. The jailers did not call them people. They started with “inmates” and it went downhill from there. So when deputies talk about their passionate desires to “help” incarcerated men and women, I tend to take it with a tablespoon of salt.

The tendency for judges to fill new, large-capacity jails is well-documented, and the consultants noted this in their final document. They also said that if the courts abandoned the methods that they were currently using to prevent overcrowding, then they would need 500 jail beds. This caused me great suspicion. In the following weeks of my involvement, I had the opportunity to witness more of the well-rehearsed justifications. For me they fell within the range of mind-boggling to infuriating.

Probably the worst was Major Kirk Keller’s arm-twisting the consultant via a memo in which Keller, the jail’s commander, came just short of demanding an option for 500 beds. This somehow would allow for Sheriff Fischer’s program of “Transformational Corrections,” a program that had never been mentioned in all the conversations between the sheriff’s office and the consultant, according to the consultant himself. It made me want to propose an additional voting option on the ballot: you’d have “Yes,” “No” and then “Hell No.”

On the lighter side, I must say that despite the obstacles and hurdles we encountered, overall it has been sheer joy working with such a group of smart, dedicated, energetic people. What started off as a group of about 45 interested people, whittled itself down to a group of about 15, who readily took up each challenge that presented itself. They have done everything from establishing us as an official Local Issue Ballot Committee, to canvassing all over the county, creating graphics for literature and signs, writing passionate letters to the editor in area newspapers, scrambling for voting information after the in-person election was canceled, attending and speaking at public meetings and so much more. Best of all, it is largely a leaderless group — everyone has taken their own initiative. Witnessing their work has certainly taken some of the sting out of dealing with the “politricks.” They are already gearing up for the aftermath, no matter the outcome of the election. Sweet.

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