Community Perspective submission by Corey Chandler
We have heard from City Council and members of the criminal justice system the exuberant amount of money the city and Rockingham County pays to house inmates in Middle River Regional Jail for the Department of Corrections. These DOC inmates are waiting for transfers to state facilities and are held at MRRJ in the meantime, at expense to both the taxpayer and themselves.
We are told that this is where the community should be focusing our energy. That this is where we should be coming together: lobbying state officials to expedite the transfers of DOC inmates from MRRJ to state prisons.
Those of us who have spent energy to resist the expansion of MRRJ in any form are now being asked to channel our considerable resources in moving our neighbors from one cage to another.
This is something we cannot do.
Our purpose in preventing MRRJ’s expansion was not just about money, was not just about the overcrowding and inhumane conditions of this facility. Our movement spoke of a higher purpose of reducing the incarceral state. Renting beds in another regional jail, transferring inmates to MRRJ; this does not address the fundamental issue. We criminalize and prosecute social problems.
We spend a considerable amount of money on public safety and incarceration. How clearer can we be: reallocate these resources to mental health; addiction treatment; affordable and accessible housing; crisis intervention that does not involve the state. If we address the context in which folks commit what has been codified as a crime, we will see the rates of crime, however we choose to measure it, fall.
The answer to the specific issue of overcrowding at MRRJ is not moving DOC inmates; without real reform, we will only fill those beds again. This happened earlier this year, when a major DOC transfer only alleviated the overcrowding at MRRJ for a short period before beds were filled again.
We are trapped in a vicious cycle where we continue to do the same thing yet expect different results. Yet, as Albert Einstein pointed out, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Reducing the incarceral state does not begin after incarceration; a true conversation about reducing the population at MRRJ does not focus on which facility to cage people in. We can significantly reduce incarceration by diverting folks away from the criminal justice system altogether. Not post-conviction, not pre-charge; without involvement from the police, prosecutors, or judges.
The state has considerable power. The General Assembly passes laws which the entire Commonwealth is bound. Yet, police, prosecutors, judges and probation officers have a considerable amount of discretion. Commonwealth Attorneys in particular have prosecutorial discretion in what they charge and what they prosecute. I cannot accept that there is not sufficient power vested in my locally elected officials to make significant changes in the criminal justice system.
I also cannot accept the notion that we, Harrisonburg City, have exhausted all efforts to reduce incarceration and could be a model for other cities to follow when simultaneously, there are conversations about renting beds from other facilities to house our neighbors in MRRJ and efforts to push an expansion are ongoing.
I have lived in the Shenandoah Valley my entire life. Harrisonburg is my home. I have faith that my community is better than this. I believe that my neighbors care about each other and our community. I hope that we can imagine a better way to address harm, crisis and social ills rather than incarceration.
But, just in case I was opaque, I want to be abundantly clear: moving DOC inmates from MRRJ to state facilities is not the answer, when the question is how we can reduce the incarceral state and help our neighbors and each other live a better life.
I call on my neighbors; my family and friends; my colleagues and classmates. I call on my City Council, my elected and unelected officials in the criminal justice system: hear us and join us. Help us imagine a better way, and then help us build it.
Corey Chandler is a master’s student in restorative justice at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University and the Administrative Director for Our Community Place. As a member of the Harrisonburg Chapter of Virginia Organizing, Corey has most recently worked to resist the expansion of Middle River Regional Jail and pushes for criminal justice reform in our community and in the Commonwealth. His work centers around reducing and addressing harm by investing in our community and returning the power currently held by the state in addressing harm and crises to the community where it belongs. He lives in downtown Harrisonburg.