By Winston Moore
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office completed the first phase of its move of over 2,200 detainees to a new Community Justice Campus, located in southeast Indianapolis, on January 17. On that same day, in that same new jail, 45-year-old Jonas Mooneyham was found dead in his cell.
The new $571 million CJC, which includes the new Marion County Jail and the Assessment and Intervention Center, has been trumpeted by local media and the Sheriff’s Office as a step towards the more humane treatment of detainees, especially those who face mental health and substance use issues. Yet, despite Mayor Joe Hogsett’s claims that “the opening of the AIC represents…a transformation in thinking about our criminal justice system,” the completely preventable death of Jonas Mooneyham shows that the criminal justice system itself has experienced no “transformation” at all. With its increased capacity, the new jail will exacerbate rather than alleviate the cycle of addiction, mental illness, punishment, and suicide that has afflicted society.
The remarks made by the Sheriff’s Office regarding Mr. Mooneyham’s death are grotesquely identical to those made on July 27, 2021, when Michael Aston took his own life in the old Marion County Jail at the City-County Building. In both cases, the Sheriff’s Office said that each man “was not housed in the suicide housing unit because ‘he didn’t present with suicidal ideations at or after booking.'”
Deputy Chief Tenesha Crear stated in April 2021 that in 2019, “the Marion County Jail recorded 780 threats of suicide and six suicide attempts. Records show two people died by suicide.” At the same time, there have been six deaths involving drugs and alcohol since 2008.
Reuters reported that the Marion County Jail’s death rate is two to three times higher than the national average. The jail and the Sheriff’s Office have repeatedly cited staff shortages and extreme disrepair as the reasons for such inhumanity. Yet, each death in the jail serves as a preventable lesson, reminding us that the real fault lies with the system and the staff themselves.
Deputy Chief Crear says that “when those deaths occur in our facility, they are not taken lightly.” Yet, according to court documents, fellow inmates reported that one victim, Kyra Warner, was experiencing symptoms of drug overdose, and four officers unceremoniously dragged her down the hallway and left her unattended in an isolation room. She was only transferred to a hospital hours later, after a deputy “threw a sack lunch at Kyra, hitting her on the leg” and she did not move; she died 14 days later.
In light of the long, detailed, and chronic history of safety violations and violence, the statements of the Sheriff’s Office ring hollow. Whatever attempts jail staff have made to reduce the graphic and brutal treatment of Ms. Warner, as well as the suicides and suicide attempts of so many others, they have led to no improvement whatsoever in the treatment of inmates.
The jail staff and the Sheriff’s Office, with their history of violence and inhumanity toward inmates, are to be blamed for the mistreatment of inmates, not the “disrepair” of the old jail building. Without a transformation in the behavior of jail staff, mistreatment will continue in the new Marion County Jail building, as the death of Mr. Mooneyham sadly demonstrates.
Indeed, local news media has marketed the $571 million “investment” as a solution to the jail’s problems. The Sheriff’s Office promises that the increased capacity will solve the overcrowding issue, while the installation of 2,500 cameras, use of tablets to make medical and chaplain requests, and inmate tracking bracelets will allegedly “increase security and improve mental health among the population”. But a new building can do nothing to directly change how deputies and jail staff treat detainees, especially those detainees who require compassionate and skilled intervention in the face of mental illness and addiction.
The Indy Star reports that over the last eight years, $1 billion has been spent on new jail construction, while investment in mental health services, both within the jail system and outside of it, is measured in terms of $100,000’s, with only one notable exception in Tippecanoe County. Along similar lines, the CJC includes a small mental health clinic, called the Assessment and Intervention Center. The AIC is currently unable to function at more than half capacity, or 30 beds, because it requires additional funding that it must seek from the City-County Council.
Moreover, the AIC will not receive detainees at the jail who are experiencing withdrawal or desires to commit suicide, but only those who are not detained for any crime. This means that detainees will continue to experience contemptuous, violent treatment from jail staff, as so many thousands who have passed through the Marion County Jail system can attest to.
Officials have pointed to the aging jail facility as a reason for increased stress among inmates. But we cannot hope to solve the mental health and addiction crises facing Indianapolis by building newer, bigger jails. The new cells will soon be filled, and then they will become overcrowded once more.
Nor will the new Marion County Jail do anything to rectify the misconduct of jail staff. That can only happen if the city and county governments massively redirect funding for incarceration and punishment towards de-escalation and first responder training, drug rehabilitation programs, and free, easy-to-access healthcare. Until the city prioritizes the well-being of its worst-off citizens, Indianapolis will continue to face the same vicious cycle, driven by an inhumane, continually failing, so-called “criminal justice” system.