Monday, June 23, 2008

New Jail Should Set Downtown Free

We’ve always suspected that the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first draft for the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center and Jail.

God knows, the imposing hulk dominating a critical city block in downtown Memphis has been the physical embodiment since 1981 for the public sector’s lack of regard for architectural quality.

From its first days, the Justice Center has been the antithesis of the welcome mat symbolized by the riverfront. If the riverfront is downtown’s warm welcome, the Justice Center is the cold water in its face.

The Lure Of Newness

In recent weeks, Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell has been doing the political equivalent of pushing a correctional boulder up the hill with his advocacy of a new jail estimated to cost roughly a half a billion dollars. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners should have been expected to push back, and many did, because they have been consumed in the past six years by the need to get control of the county’s crippling debt. A new jail alone would increase that debt by about 25 percent.

The option to a new building is a $180 million renovation of the present jail, but from where we sit, that’s a poor option, because that facility has clearly outlived its usefulness. For 27 years, the jail has been county government’s money pit, chewing up tax dollars from the inefficiencies inherent in its poorly designed architecture.

Almost immediately after the ribbon was cut to open it, the building technology that was supposedly state-of-the-art went on the blink. Of course, state-of-the-art back then meant a system of pneumatic tubes that always operated on their own schedule.


Meanwhile, flaws in the design were obvious from the first staffing chart, as significantly more jailers were needed to manage the labor-intensive design. Unfortunately, the architectural firm for the center was chosen more for its political connections than for its previous experience so the jail was in essence its on-the-job training in jail design.

In retrospect, it’s surprising that it took this long for the building’s obsolescence to force calls for a new jail. Shelby County Government spent $250,000 for a consultant’s report on the crowded jail, and it makes a convincing case for change. It suggested that savings in manpower and more efficient operations would offset the costs for a new jail.

Hopefully, the commissioners will resist the siren’s call to put band-aids on a building that has hemorrhaged money for way too long. And if it makes the right call, we hope that its second vote will be to blow up this architectural monstrosity and remove it from downtown once and for all (unless Bass Pro Shop needs an outlet mall).

Welcome Home

We’ve been told by many researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that it’s difficult to make a decision to come to Memphis to work, because of the shallow job market, lack of a “real” downtown, the absence of a reliable, modern public transit system, and the crime rate. However, the present location of the Justice Center is an obstacle that the internationally famous hospital must regularly clear, because it loudly sends a message that this is one unsafe place to live and work.

As one person put it: “I hadn’t heard a lot of good things about Memphis before I came here, and most of my friends couldn’t believe I was considering a job here. But when I was driven to the hospital and drove by that massive jail with its razor wire, I sure thought they were right. I figured that I was being asked to work in a terribly dangerous part of the city.”

In the end, that particular researcher did in fact accept a job at St. Jude, but others at the hospital say that the dominating presence of the jail does nothing to help in the successful recruitment of doctors who can work anywhere in the world.

Out Of Sight

So, here’s hoping that when and if the commissioners vote for a more efficient, more humane facility, it’s moved from such a prominent place where its fortress façade won’t be such an eyesore to a major entry point to downtown.

It’s always been curious to us that the parking lot for the jail is sitting next to a building filled with hundreds of law enforcement officers and jailers, and yet, it’s somehow necessary to put up a fence topped with razor wire to protect these officers’ vehicles.

Sometimes, it seems that any time the jail has a chance to blend into downtown and mitigate its impact, it has done just the opposite. For example, when the expansion to the jail was approved about a decade ago, Shelby County Government promised to landscape its frontage on Poplar, but instead, it simply ignored its agreement with the Center City Commission and slapped up its razor wired fence.

Of course, more troubling than the cost of a new jail is the need for it. It seems to guarantee that Shelby County Government will continue to run a prison system that is larger than more than a dozen state systems. A new jail would increase the number of beds in the jail alone to about 4,000.


Anonymous said...

Where to put a new jail?

fieldguidetomemphis said...

You get what you plan for, right? If you build a brand new huge prison, you're going to have to find ways to fill it. The prison industry bases population projections on 4th grade reading scores. (Yikes.) That alone is a little more than disturbing.

It's our responsibility that we are fundamentally unable to keep our jails full - meaning that it is our responsibility to make sure that the jail population is dwindling because of lower rates of recidivism and more investment in community-based measures that deter crime - like getting people jobs.

We have so many criminals because they have so many opportunities to commit crime. Many neighborhoods are in disrepair. The economic situation here coupled with the impossible transportation system makes it nearly impossible for people to get and keep good jobs. If we really wanted fewer criminals, we'd invest heavily in schools. I was very glad to read in today's CA that Head Start will not be affected by funding cuts (even though they have not had a budget increase in years).

Many people in prison in Tennessee are parents, and we need to be considering what happens to kids when their parents go to jail. Kids with parents in jail are more likely to have trouble with the law themselves. The disruptiveness of a missing parent is cumulative and has well-documented negative outcomes for kids. The Children's Defense Fund has a "Cradle to Prison Pipeline Initiative" that is worth taking a look at...

It really bothers me that we are willing to cut funding for everything pertaining to the development and advancement of citizens - ahem, Memphis public schools - but we're willing to pay through the nose for the perception of safety.

Ultimately whether it's a new facade on an old unsightly building or an entirely new jail altogether, the reality is the same: we're still polishing a turd. It should be an embarrassment that we have and need more prisons - locally and nationwide. It doesn't reflect poorly on the criminals - it reflects poorly on all of us for not actively pursuing a better society. Our number one priority should be to make sure that 4th graders are on target with their reading skills in our community.

The Smart City post this morning really raises some very interesting and important questions for our community. While locating the prison outside of downtown may increase the attractiveness of the area to new knowledge economy workers as St. Jude says, it advocates our locating the problem neatly out of sight, hidden in the remote undeveloped areas of the Mid-South. Our community shame will be neatly tucked away in the 'burbs where we don't have to see the barbed wire fences surrounding the workers' cars on Poplar. (Have they settled on a location for the proposed new facility?)

(Also, there's something vaguely ironic about this: people flee to the suburbs because it's supposedly safer, AND they're okay with building a prison there to house the people they've worked so hard to get away from...)

Safe communities are ones that don't cultivate criminals. Safe communities are ones that invest in education and parks and community activities and neighborhoods. The catch is that it's a bit roundabout - to deter crime, you have to make it less attractive for people to become criminals en masse, meaning reducing poverty, cleaning up blighted neighborhoods, providing structured opportunities for kids rather than leaving them to raise themselves.

The person/institution who's really got this right is the Catholic schools under the leadership of Mary McDonald with their business-education partnership. This should be the paragon of learning environments in our community.

"If you build it, they will come" - this is true across the board. If you build prisons, they will be filled. On the other hand, if you build structured opportunities for success, they will be met. Community success through education and jobs is a better investment than prisons, hands down. We need to rearrange our priorities...

Aaron said...

Well put Fieldguide. But we are a disposable society and changing that mindset is a monumental painfully incremental process.

It takes little time to rapidly extract the earths natural resources and convert it into material wealth and disposable products.

Figuring out how to heal and replenish the earth with the same resources that were taken from it is a complex and low priority task....until we run out. In the meantime just build a bigger landfill and figure out the how to close the loop later.

Human resources are no different it's just now that our environment is just starting to reflect the abuse and exploitation that we have been imposing on our fellow brothers and sisters for many ages. Build a bigger prison, build a bigger landfill...out of sight , out of mind and everything is just fine.

Can you imagine what sort of programs could be started with that price tag?

Anonymous said...


I am amazed to see you spreading the urban myth of the 4th grade reading scores as an approach to prison projections. This myth has been around for a few years but appears to be little more than a myth.

Otherwise I agree with your comment.

Aaron said...

"polishing a turd"

Never heard it put that way...That's really funny!!!

Zippy the giver said...

I would argue that opprtunity to commit crime is second to lack of opprtunities to do well. If you can't see that opportunities to do well exist around an individual that are actually possible for that individual to realize without any extras not in that individuals possession, then they effectively don't exist for that individual. That causes bad recividism stats.
I believe that Memphis and Tennessee HAVE invested very heavily in schools and that the administration has mismanaged that money to line their own pockets otr other hidden agendas that DO exist, chronyism, job welfare, nepotism, plain graft and theft of resources. There is a large population of extortion minded racists in Memphis.
Surely we need to fund head starts and the like , but, there is a lack of funding for programs aimed at adults and those seeking to feed their families legally after incarceration. There is a lack of accountability to seek effective programs (in excess of 80%) and a lack of accountability to implement them. We keep doing the same things the same way with a different look on our face or different clothes on and expect a better result that isn't going to happen based on those types of changes.
The school system, though completely broken, is not the issue here, that is a separate issue that affects this issue.
Adult programs deployed where they will be effective is one issue.
Local or Kioske style Deployment of a database of ALL Memphis services is also key.
People need to be able to go to churches, libraries, community centers, boys and girls clubs, and get help that is local and specific to their needs.
They also need training to do the right thing parenting kids, mentoring their kids friends appropriately, training other families in need, how to seek help, and other strategies that could specifically help Memphians with the specific problems they face today with an eye toward generating self suffiuciency. They usually recieve no training in their homes, some have problems that can not ever be adressed.
Those people will need lifelong housing in a secure facility outside the city center.
There are very few schools in the MCSsystemthat one would call desirable to send your kids to. That does not equal success or staff acountability. That will have to end to keep from putting more people in prison that just don't need follow that path.
We could take one week of school or two to train kids in self actualizing behavior and that would pretty much buletproof them against the outside forces of stupidity in the future and THAT would generate success for Memphis in the future as long as we also redirected city policy to support that success. I suspect that would be cheaper in hte long and short run on the taxpayers as this would be totally generated by the people and not the government. It could concentrate on infrastructure issues as it should do.
Right now, what children in school see and inmates leaving prison see is that Memphis city Government has a plan to put everyone in prison and that low income people's children will all end up there someday. They see no commitment to substantive efort to make Memphis a place where progress happens.
Now, if you look at the arrest stats for Memphis, crime is going up, BUT, what people don't realize is that when you don't have enough police on the streets, they tend to not want to show up to calls in certain areas or make a lot of arrests, a lot of crime went on without a police report due to police inaction. That has begun to turn around with the hiring of more officers.
We need a bigger jail to have a place for the offenders to pause before retraining.
Another issue is the very weird lack of prosecutors to handle cases and the lack of cooperation from the judicial system to get more judges on the bench and to self police the judicial system. Corruption runs amok in Memphis judicial system. There are some hod ones, but, WE NEED MORE.

"Safe communities are ones that invest in education and parks and community activities and neighborhoods. The catch is that it's a bit roundabout - to deter crime, you have to make it less attractive for people to become criminals en masse, meaning reducing poverty, cleaning up blighted neighborhoods, providing structured opportunities for kids rather than leaving them to raise themselves."
That is a bit "non negative, low goal for me to agree with. To deter crime, you need to train people to see opportunities they CAN grasp and qualify to utilize, think creatively about how to improve their situation for their community and themselves, and they will come up with creative structured opportunities themselves in the absence of publicly funded structures. That will also lower recividism of freed inmates too. Once we don't generate inmates we can sell the new bldg. One thing is for sure, if we keep on doing what we have been doing we'll get more of the same of what we already have!

Anonymous said...

Maybe Herenton could turn 201 into a convention center and put the new jail on the fairgrounds. He could contract his buddy Moon to do the jobs.

Zippy the giver said...

So, I said effective programs, for the school (where the inmates are) and the schools, (where we currently generate inmates). What would comprise these succes stats.
80% or better.
How would you know?
With at least two outside independent firms customer survey stats, and that no Memphis based company was involved to insure that no chronyism is involved.
Does that company and training exist now?
Yes it does, all over the world, just not in Memphis.
They design the world's top companies leadership programs. They have a program designed for prisons too, and one for children, and adults.
It is the most effective training on earth.
People with hidden personal agendas fear this company.
Fed Ex didn't, neither did UPS, Nike, Reebok, Diana Ross, Dr. Phil, John Denver, Cloris Leachman, Valerie Harper, Dean of Harvard Business School, Dean of Wharton School of Business, and a lot of others.
People here don'
t seem to think for themselves and they substitute it with paranoia of other peopl's motives. That is the training they recieve in our schools, our government, and at home.
We have no training here in Memphis specifically designed to address that and then go beyind it.
We have a host of programs here designed to address the symptoms of our Memphis ills, but, none to adress the root problem. One would think we are cannabalising our citizens in this way as an industry.
That we have nothing to adress that fundamental truth is abbhorrant and that we don't even look or acknowledge that is a death sentence for our future.

Anonymous said...


How do you have time for these long posts? I thought you were going to busy taking the troublemakers down?

Zippy the giver said...

I had a free minute. Did you notice, I didn't have time to spell check?

Aaron said...

Zippu: Could you distill those thoughts for us?

Zippy the giver said...

everything from the cradle to the grave is wrong with what happens to aspiring inmates or they'de have higher goals and we wouldn't need a jail, but, we do and it needs to be out of the city center.
Can we work on fixing the other stuff too?

Anonymous said...

201 is civic center of thug society. would you move bond daddies and lawyuhs and the gravity well of their service population out of the downtown area, where it is centralized within walking distance of the Union Mission and Tri-Shot liquor store?

a civic disservice you are proposing.