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Masturbating man interrupts forum on Charlottesville jail renovation

A contentious community forum on proposed renovations to Charlottesville’s jailhouse got off to a rocky start Thursday evening, when a participant who had joined virtually via Zoom appeared to be vigorously masturbating on camera.

Twenty minutes into the hybrid meeting, those attending in-person at Carver Recreation Center noticed unusual sounds, including moans, coming from the speaker of the computer being used to broadcast the session to a virtual audience.

The sounds began to present a clear distraction for the audience as well as Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail Superintendent Martin Kumer, who was leading the forum designed to educate the public on the multimillion-dollar proposals for renovations to his facility.

For those attending in person, the only thing that could be seen on screen was Kumer’s PowerPoint presentation. But in an effort to identify and put a stop to the mysterious sounds emanating from a Zoom participant, the slideshow was minimized, revealing the faces of those attending virtually.

Among them was a man with dark hair, seated in front of his camera, completely naked and masturbating.

Kumer immediately sprang into action, rushing to the front of the room and throwing his hands over a portion of the projection screen in an attempt to block the image from view. But the video was coming from a projector, and instead of blocking the image from view, it was only projected onto the sleeve of his jacket.

The Zoom meeting was then closed, sparing the in-person audience from the episode but also preventing other virtual attendees from participating in the next hour of the forum. Kumer said he has not yet decided if there will be an additional online forum to compensate for the one that people were promised but was abruptly ended due to the unwelcome guest.

The entire episode lasted a matter of seconds, eliciting groans and laughter from the in-person audience.

Getting rid of the guest was perhaps the only thing the room agreed on for the rest of the night.

It was a comical start to a meeting on a very serious matter, considering that despite significant pushback from many in the room, the city of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Nelson County appear on track to spend $72 million renovating the jail.

Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail services all three of those localities. It was built in 1975 and has received limited updates since. As a result, the facility is showing its age, with poor air filtration, inadequate heating and cooling, limited mental health services and decaying pipes. Kumer has been very accommodating with his schedule, giving tours to the public so they can see the bleak and aging conditions for themselves.

Kumer and others at the jail want to see it receive significant updates, which they say will improve conditions for inmates and staff alike.

Some community members, however, believe that the funding required for costly updates would be better spent on social programs that reduce crime rates and keep people out of jail in the first place.

That schism was obvious Thursday night during the last — and best attended — of three community forums organized by the jail authority. Kumer and Tony Bell of Richmond-based Moseley Architects, the firm selected to carry out the renovations, had to endure frequent criticism and interruptions from those in the crowd, including a prison abolitionist who would prefer the entire facility be shut down.

There is little Bell and Kumer could have said to satisfy Melissa Gilrain, who was frustrated not just by the renovation proposal but by the entire U.S. incarceration system.

Gilrain had issues not just with the jail’s very existence but with how the renovation proposal process has been carried out since it began years ago. While Kumer insists he and his staff have gone above and beyond to collect community input during the yearslong process, Gilrain and others argue they are not being heard.

And while the public has been presented with four options to choose from, many critics believe that Kumer and others who have significant influence over the final decision have already made up their minds: They want to go with Option 3, a significant renovation that documents show has received much more planning and attention than the other three alternatives.

“What I feel like they’re advertising is community input,” Gilrain said. "At the beginning, I thought they were listening to my input, but it turned out that everything I was saying ended up getting twisted into supporting Option 3, which I don’t support at all.”

The jail authority asked for community feedback in 2021, but those sessions were poorly attended. Those who did participate said they feel they were given a “wish list." It asked for things they’d like to theoretically see modified at the jail. It did not include pricing and did not explain how that list would be used.

So while they wanted improved conditions for inmates, such as better medical services and larger cells, what they really wanted was community social programs to reduce crime.

"The main thing is we shouldn’t spend money on jailing people. We need to spend money on preventing jailing people. Housing, mental health services, jobs, all those things that cause crime," Kate Fraleigh, who has been closely following this process for years, told The Daily Progress.

That’s been the focus for many of the jail’s critics, and Kumer has heard them out during each community forum.

"I like the constructive criticism, and it’s really hard for me to disagree with a lot of it in principle," Kumer told The Daily Progress. "Could that money be spent elsewhere? Of course it could, but the argument of either-or is what I don’t agree with. You can do both."

Many of those same critics don’t only disagree with the renovations in principle, but how the entire process has been presented to the public, calling it "performative" and "a farce." They’ve said they don’t feel as though they’ve had meaningful input in the process, apart from the 2021 "wish list."

A summary of that list can be found in documents distributed by Moseley Architects in 2021 titled “Community Feedback.” It contains more than 60 items. The list was used to conceptualize Option 3, a significant renovation that would renovate one wing of the jail while demolishing another and building a two-story expansion in its place.

“This feedback came from the community. This is what you told us you wanted to see,” Kumer said during an open house virtual meeting in October 2021.

The few community members who participated in that original feedback session say they feel like they were tricked: By checking off items that they’d theoretically like to see in a renovation, the jail had the ability to design a significant renovation, including a demolition of the jail’s east wing.

Gilrain and other critics say that the authority used their feedback to greenlight its preferred project, while being able to argue it was simply responding to the community feedback.

Further, although there are currently four options in total, three of them were created very recently.

During the October 2021 open house, there was only discussion of what is now known as Option 3, which has a total cost of $49 million but is estimated to cost $72 million when localities have to pay back interest on the loans required to fund it. That project has been approved for a 25% reimbursement from the commonwealth. The less expensive options have not yet been submitted to Virginia officials.

Despite the entire process beginning during the pandemic, there does not appear to be any mention of those less expensive options until Oct. 24, 2023.

That’s when Moseley Architects submitted a cost-of-services proposal. It’s there that the alternatives are mentioned for the first time. According to the document, the first option would be a $20 million renovation that replaces “systems and finishes.” The other would be a “medium” expansion and renovation at a cost of $35 million.

That same document notes that, unlike Option 1, the alternative proposals had not yet been submitted to the commonwealth for approval.

So while the jail authority board is scheduled to vote on which option to approve in just a matter of a week and a half, it appears to be far more familiar with Kumer’s preferred option than any of the alternatives.

None of those alternatives have been submitted to the commonwealth for its blessing, and if the board were to select them instead of Option 3, the jail authority would have to expend more time and resources into the approval process.

Essentially, Option 3 is unique not just because it is the most expensive proposal but because it has received the most attention and is much further along in the design process than any of the others. If the board were to vote against it, it would be creating significant more work for Kumer, his staff and Moseley Architects.

Fraleigh does not expect that to be a problem. She is confident that the board won’t say no to Option 3 considering that jail has expressed a clear preference for it.

“They’re pushing it so hard. And the people on the jail board, many of them are in law enforcement,” Fraleigh said. “They’re just embedded in the jail, that jail is good, that Kumer is good, and that whatever Kumer wants Kumer should get. I’m not really hopeful.”

If she had to choose between the options presented, she’d prefer 1 or 1a, which would increase dormitory and day room space for inmates as well as update plumbing, lighting, heating and air conditioning.

While Option 3 has been in the works for some time, the cheaper tiers were not viewed by the public until the first community forum held in late January.

“Unfortunately, the community hasn’t had any real input on the three triers presented to us,” Ruby Cherian, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center, told The Daily Progress after that forum. “It feels like this was a presentation of slides and information presented to us rather than any real ability to engage with the tiers and give input on what the tiers should have.”

“It feels like we’ve been spoken at rather than spoken with,” said Cherian, whose nonprofit organization provides legal services and advocacy to low-income individuals and has been one of the proposed renovation’s harshest critics.

Kumer staunchly disagreed with that categorization, saying he’s gone above and beyond what is required.

“When I talk to other superintendents about this process they’re like, ‘What are you doing?’” Kumer told The Daily Progress. “They say, ‘Why are you still talking about it three years later?’ Because we want our community involved.”

It is true that Kumer has done more than is necessary regarding community outreach. But considering many still feel as though that outreach has largely been performative, it may be an indication of how little power Virginians have in Virginia’s complicated carceral system.

And considering how new three of the four proposed options are, and considering that for years Option 3 was the only proposal presented to the jail board, it raises questions not just about whether that body has had adequate time to seriously consider all of the choices before it, but if each option is operating on a level playing field.

The board consists of 11 voting members, four from Albemarle, four from Charlottesville and three from Nelson. The Daily Progress reached out to a majority of the members to get a sense of how they will vote on March 14.

Many did not respond.

Charlottesville Deputy City Manager Ashley Marshall did but was unwilling to provide an answer.

Kaki Dimock, Albemarle director of social services, said that the board has scheduled an hourlong work session just before the meeting where votes will be tallied. “I look forward to this time and information and know that it will influence my vote,” she wrote to The Daily Progress.

Albemarle County Supervisor Diantha McKeel also mentioned that work session.

“While the Authority has been working through the Department of Corrections prescribed renovation process (for 25% reimbursement) and public engagement for 4 years, this additional time will provide the Authority members assurance that they completely understand the options,” McKeel wrote.

Charlottesville City Councilor Brian Pinkston was more decisive. He is going to vote for Option 3 and expects most of the board will too.

“People on the board sincerely think it’s the right thing to do for the community,” he said.

Pinkston noted that time, money and effort have already been spent by the jail staff to get to this point, an indication that it will be difficult for the board to turn back now. If it were to select any other option, it would have to essentially go back to the drawing board, repeating the work it has already put into Option 3.

The harshest critics of the project prefer no updates be made at all, hoping that money could instead be invested in social programs.

The board doesn’t seem to agree, and neither does Kumer, who on Thursday night objected to a suggestion that no renovations be made.

“What will happen to you if nothing gets done in the jail?” he asked in his most forceful objection to the criticism directed at him. “Will you work there? Will you live there? Will you have to breathe the same air?”

He added that whether or not renovations are made, like it or not, convicted criminals will continue to be put in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.

“Whether or not we do anything, everyone’s still coming and they are left with those consequences,” he said. “My job is to make sure that place is safe and humane and meets the needs of the city, the staff and the men and women who live there. Period.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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