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Dane County’s jail project barrels down a familiar road, but there are always more off-ramps

The County Board counts costs, Sheriff Barrett moves incarcerated people, and the Black Caucus recommends an alternative—as budget season heats up.
A photo of a Progressive Lane street sign under a cloudy sky and a tree, covered with shadows from an encroaching set of abstract red jail bars, overlapping at strange angles.

The County Board counts costs, Sheriff Barrett moves incarcerated people, and the Black Caucus recommends an alternative—as budget season heats up.

It’s time to revisit what’s happening with the Dane County jail consolidation project, with its continued cost overruns. After failing to push the County Board of Supervisors to borrow even more money (multiple times), Sheriff Kalvin Barrett and County Executive Joe Parisi have suggested taking that funding increase to the people as a referendum this fall, where Parisi said he expected it would pass. The same County Supervisors pushing the board for $10 million more also drafted language for the referendum—which asks voters to approve $10 million more in funding, without the context of the current jail plan’s full $176 million pricetag. Parisi set a deadline of August 18 for the County Board to approve the referendum, but work on the referendum appears to have stalled

More recently, the sheriff has decided to start moving people out of the decrepit City-County Building jail facility, and into other jails as of August 2.

And finally, the Dane County Black Caucus has emerged with a new plan that still involves building a $166 million jail tower but chops off a floor while attempting to extract some concessions from our punishment systems, to repair our most-racially-biased-in-the-nation carceral system.

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Local news coverage says the project is “$10 million over budget,” but if you travel back in time to when the initial cost was $76 million, the last proposal from construction consultants Mead & Hunt was $100 million over budget. For a tiny fraction of the cost of the current plans, it sure seems like we could close our dangerous spaces, pay other jails in nearby counties for years—until we’ve forced our systems to repair their biases and reduce their pre-trial jailing—and not need to build anything. So let’s delve into the details here.

Excerpt from an August 1 stakeholder memo from the Dane County Sheriff's Office announcing a decision to close portions of the current Dane County Jail and move people incarcerated there to jails in other counties.
Excerpt from an August 1 stakeholder memo from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office announcing a decision to close portions of the current Dane County Jail and move people incarcerated there to jails in other counties.

“Shipping” people

Claims about the dangerous, inhumane City-County Building (CCB) floors of the jail have been central during years of debate over the jail consolidation project. Elected officials and law enforcement cite this problematic jail space as the primary reason to build the expensive new tower. Now, the sheriff is finally closing some of that space. Is that space inhumane, as the sheriff claims? Yes. Is closing it good? Also yes. But, as District 33 County Supervisor and Black Caucus member Dana Pellebon tells Tone Madison, one could argue all jails are inhumane by nature. Asked what she thought about this sudden move of incarcerated folks by the sheriff, Pellebon said “It caught us all off guard.” Now people are being shuffled around like political footballs while the County Board is still deciding what to fund.

As a quick sidebar, it’s worth noticing who gets quoted or referenced when we talk about the jail. Let’s just run down the quotes and references in a recent Wisconsin State Journal article about this latest surprise: Sheriff, sheriff, sheriff, ex-sheriff, spokesperson for the sheriff, sheriff’s office email, spokesperson for the sheriff, Republican opposition to the sheriff, sheriff, spokesperson for the sheriff, county board, county exec, Dane County Black Caucus member, county executive, sheriff. Not a single impacted person is a source in this story: no incarcerated people, no public defenders, no families. This is a function of how our media works, and it’s worth keeping in mind as you read the news about the jail: it’s all being framed by those in power. By contrast, a recent Wisconsin Public Radio report includes Jerome Dillard, a director of Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) in Madison, as a source.

The question to ask is: Why now? This sheriff (and his predecessor, Dave Mahoney) have been harping on the dangerous, dire status of the CCB floors for a decade or more. Maybe we could have gotten people out sooner to solve the “inhumane” CCB problem, and used the time to find methods to cut our jail population so we wouldn’t need to build an expensive tower. Why did it take a staffing crisis to close the floors, if they are so inhumane? Tone Madison asked the Dane County Sheriff’s Office (DSCO) spokesperson Elise Schaffer about this, who said, “I think it was a combination of things. I know the sheriff had hoped we were going to continue to move forward with the new construction, but then also one of the defining things is the staffing issue.” (It’s important to note that Milwaukee County jails are currently in a staffing crisis as well.)

Dillard told Wisconsin Public Radio that “he’s glad to hear that the facility is closing and agrees that there are major safety concerns.” But the shift is not without impact on people who are incarcerated. 

“It takes them away from their families,” said Dillard. “It takes them away from their support networks and being able to have people visit them. They just opened visits back up.”

Dillard pointed out that it’s a costly stop-gap measure that could become the norm, and the WPR coverage noted, paraphrasing Dillard, that this “only kicks the problem down the road.” 

“I personally feel that we can reduce that population. There are a lot of people sitting in that jail, many cases have not been charged with anything,” Dillard said.

Dane County has, in fact, kicked the can down this particular road before. In 2002, Dane County “housed” as many as 69 people in other counties’ jails, at a cost of $350,000. Isthmus reports that County Board conservatives pushed to add new floors to the jail. Instead, the county pursued reforms that reduced the number of people sitting in the jail. In 2010, our jails had a daily population of 871, down from a high of 1,224 in 2006. Clearly, our jail population is not inextricably tied to the growing populace of Dane County, as some on the County Board have tried to argue. That’s a reduction of 29% in 4 years. As of August 2, the jail population was 685, and we could continue that reduction, especially if we reduced the number of presumed-innocent people held pre-trial… but only if there was political will—only if enough people made enough noise. 

As for current costs to “ship” “residents” (the euphemism Barrett proudly adopted in 2021 for people Dane County incarcerates) to these other jails, the sheriff has said he will transfer 65 people to other counties at $60 per day. That works out to $1.42 million per year, or $21,900 per bed per year, plus other costs like transit. That sounds expensive, but what were the operating costs per person in maximum-security CCB before this change? Tone Madison asked DSCO spokesperson Elise Schaffer for cost differences, but they have “no concrete numbers”, and are still in the beginning stages of this change.

Cost disease

Eric Howland, of criminal-justice reform advocacy organization MOSES, tells Tone Madison he finds it important to focus on the operating cost of the jail, pointing out that the Dane County budget to operate the jail is $43,223,362 and the cost of personnel within that is $32,294,800. “That means that every 5 years we spend as much on operating the jail as it will take to [build the planned jail consolidation project],” Howland says. He points out that if the county can cut 10 staff positions, “we have more than a million dollars per year to do anything else with, like support people with mental illness.” However, he also notes that cutting staff positions is always contentious. Maybe the discussion here will be less fraught when the county simply can’t fill those positions.

Estimates for average county jail bed operating cost in the United States range between $34,000 to $47,057 per year. If we divide the Dane County operating budget by 800 (more than the current jail population), it’s costing us over $54,029 per bed per year. This is clearly inexact—it would be great to get real numbers out of the DCSO—but it’s simply not cheap to keep people in cages. And since around 75% of the cost is staffing, that brings us back to the staffing crisis. There are 274 staff positions assigned to the jail. The total department is short 40 people, and DCSO spokesperson Elise Schaffer tells Tone Madison: “Well, everyone [on staff] starts out in the jail. I can’t say specifically there are 40 [unfilled positions in the jail], we look at it more in the bigger picture. [The staffing crisis] is agency-wide.” (When Tone Madison called the Dane County Sheriff’s Office last week, their phone system said “You are being transferred to the attendant. Goodbye!” and then hung up. The phone system seems to be working again as of Monday.)

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If we can’t staff our jail, maybe that should tell us something about what an awful job it is. This should give us even more reason to decrease our jail population and invest the money into supporting systems that help people before they hit the criminal legal system. If it costs $50,000 per year to put homeless people in our jail, can’t we house them and get them the mental health care they need instead, and still save money?

A new plan

Now the Dane County Black Caucus, a group of County Board Supervisors composed of April Kigeya, Pellebon, Andrew Gray, and ally Jacob Wright, are introducing a modified jail consolidation plan. You can read the high level details on their website or drill into the nuts and bolts in 2022 RES-136.

Pellebon tells Tone Madison the plan’s goals are to reduce the cost, and to make sure people recognize that our racial disparities are not going away, but are going up. The caucus points out that we incarcerate Black people in Dane County at twice the national average (an average that is bad enough to start with). They note that “on any given day, 1.4% of Dane County’s Black population is incarcerated.” This is a travesty. If white people were incarcerated at the same rate, over 6,650 white Dane County residents would be behind bars right now.

The Dane County Black Caucus plan seems to be trying to strike a balance between the Board members who want to give the sheriff anything he wants, and the group of county supervisors that has been arguing for entirely different answers to reduce our carceral spending. But finding a middle path here is a tricky one. What’s the compromise between spending $176 million on a six-story tower, and spending the money on alternatives like non-coercive addiction care, actually supporting underserved communities, and housing homeless folks? The caucus’ chosen path: spend $166 million on a five-story jail tower with 100 fewer beds, and call for a bunch of reforms.

So what are their suggested changes and reforms? Weekend court: something consultants from the JFA Institute have been telling county officials they should implement for quite some time. Removing medical beds from the new jail design is a fine idea: although the sheriff wants to provide more “services” in the jail and has been pushing for a medical wing, we have hospitals that already provide good medical care. The Dane County Black Caucus’s plan also calls for arrest reforms, probation changes, reduction of federal prisoners, and more tweaks that all seem sensible. They also suggest much needed bail reform.

On the topic of bail, remember that 99 percent of the growth of U.S. jail populations in the last 15 years has been in pre-trial holds—that’s all people who are legally innocent. As previously covered in Tone Madison, Dane County has many blind spots around holding people on bail. Eric Howland tells Tone Madison that this is one area where judges “have the power to do whatever they want,” though Howland pointed out that may change. The Wisconsin Legislature is likely to continue its attempt to bring a constitutional amendment to voters in 2023 to limit judges’ options when setting bail, and force cash bail for certain charges. This moves us backwards from the direction states like Illinois are heading in, as they  limit cash bail.

For improved bail reporting here in Dane County, the DCBC plan urges a quarterly report that contains a breakdown based on offense, gender, age, race, ethnicity, and whether or not cash bail was used. Recall, however, that the County Board cannot require, it can only urge. 2020 RES-177 “requested” this kind of bail reporting, and in the meeting that report was given, the breakdown of those who actually get bail by race or other categories was inexplicably excluded (supposedly an accident) and never released. Requests for this information, to the presenter at the time of that meeting and again to the Criminal Justice Council coordinator in March 2022, were ignored.

Tone Madison asked Board Supervisor Anthony Gray from the Dane County Black Caucus if they plan to use the Board’s budgetary powers to hold the DA, sheriff, and courts to account in some way. He replied: “I sincerely hope that the County Board is prepared to use its budgetary powers to support and enforce the initiatives it ‘urges’ in its resolutions. However, I can only speak for myself. My take is that when Board members are willing to sacrifice the institutional prerogatives of the body, we can hardly complain when our co-equal branches of government ignore us. If we don’t treat our powers seriously, why should they?”

Thus far, the County Board as a whole hasn’t been willing to exercise those powers. Our elected County Board Supervisors don’t seem to be able to make our punishment bureaucracy even release full information about bail, never mind make any impact on how cash bail is actually used. What makes us think that any of these other “urged” reforms will actually happen?

Reforms without teeth

Clearly, calling for these reforms is great and necessary, but there’s an obvious roadblock here. The County Board holds the purse strings, but so far has not managed to compel the courts or the district attorney or the sheriff to change their actions and policies. It’s quite possible that if Dane County builds a jail, that will lock down some of our future choices.

Pellebon says a recent statement by James Austin, a JFA Institute consultant who has been working with the county, cut through the noise. At the Criminal Justice Council meeting on July 25, Austin said, “The racial disparity is your number one problem, by far,” going on to explain that if the county keeps the plan for a new jail at 825 beds, that means we are committed to these racial disparities for 25 to 30 years. 

On Monday, August 8 at 5:30 p.m., the county’s Public Works & Transportation and Public Protection & Judiciary committees are holding a joint meeting to discuss the Dane County Black Caucus’ plan. “I’d like people to read our plan,” Pellebon says. “I don’t want people to support it blindly. I’d like people to show up and support what we’re doing. They don’t have to talk, they can register in support.” (The plan is 2022 RES-136, or B1 on the agenda.) Or you can register to simply join the conversation.

For abolitionists and those who want to spend our money to decarcerate, more reforms with no teeth are a very incomplete answer. We should not assume that spending $166 million on a tower is a foregone conclusion. The money is only borrowed—it has not been spent yet (and borrowing authorization for $76 million of that—the cost of the original 2018 plan—is set to expire in January 2023). We need to demand that the county enact the changes in the Dane County Black Caucus plan to repair our disparities. And more than that: we should consider demanding that systemic fixes happen before allowing our punishment systems to spend $166 million.

Remember: “Compared with noncustodial sanctions, incarceration appears to have a null or mildly criminogenic effect on future criminal behavior.” Once more for those in the back: Department of Justice-sponsored research has found that our carceral system is either doing nothing to help, or making things worse. Calls for “public safety” and fears of “rising crime” are often code for folks being forced to notice visible poverty. We need to solve housing problems by housing people in permanently affordable housing, not with arrests and jail. We need to solve mental health problems with mental health care, not with arrests and jail. We need to support the many alternatives to arresting people and putting them in jail. Putting people in jail pretrial for nonviolent offenses or probation mistakes that aren’t even crimes is not making anyone safer. In fact, it rips holes in our community. 

Pellebon tells Tone Madison: “Let’s talk about it and make this an open conversation in our community, and not just hide this behind a building.” She notes the irony of Madison commonly being included in “Top 10 Great Places To Live” listicles while it continues to have the number one criminal legal system in racial biases against Black people, a disparity that’s actually worsening. 

Sheriff Barrett told the State Journal last week: “I will continue to advocate for a facility to be built in Dane County which reflects our community values.” 

We must stand up and say that our community values are in direct opposition to the racially biased carceral system we are all propping up. As long as we’re happy to keep imprisoning Black, poor, and homeless people at absurd rates, we’re never going to actually “progress” in this supposedly progressive bubble.

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