At a packed meeting at Morning Star Baptist Church in northwest Spokane on Monday night, justice reform advocates railed against proposals from regional elected leaders to build a new correctional facility.
"We are absolutely clear: No new jail," Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and a member of the Smart Justice Spokane executive committee, told the enthusiastic crowd sitting in the church pews.
Over the past few months, County Commissioner Al French has pushed the notion of hashing out a plan to replace the aging and overcrowded Spokane County Jail and Geiger Corrections Center — even suggesting putting a financing proposal before voters in the fall. French and others have argued that a new facility is necessary to improve conditions for inmates and jail staff. The push also comes after a string of inmate deaths last year.
But at the meeting — which was organized by Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR), a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates — speakers from a variety of local advocacy organizations pointed to a slew of statistics highlighting racial disparities in the the county jail population, the broader justice system, and local policing practices as evidence that the construction of a new jail will only exacerbate the existing issues.
"Why are we having a conversation about a new jail when we've had eight deaths in 14 months? When we had five deaths in six months prior to that?" Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP, told the crowd in a pre-recorded video.
Instead, the speakers from organizations like the Center for Justice and the Bail Project argued that money should be poured into community resources, such as affordable housing and prison re-entry programs, before the county makes any moves towards building new facilities. Specifically, they pointed to the recommendations in the 2013 "Blueprint for Reform Report," which called for implementing reforms such as expanding pretrial services before pursuing a new jail.
"We are using the county jail as public housing," said Layne Pavey, founder of I Did the Time, an advocacy organization. "And our elected officials, Democrats included, are talking about 'well, maybe we'll just build a nice smaller jail.' But they're not talking about permanent supportive housing."
Throughout the event, the speakers called on the community to mobilize in opposition to any new jail proposal.
"There is no substitute for an organized community," Moore said.