Digging into the latest opposition to a smaller Dane County Jail

Dane County skirts meaningful reform and looks to bypass resistance to building a new jail.
A glowing box descends, about to block the exit of a pedestrian construction scaffolding that leads out into a sunny day. Spiderwebs, trash, and abstract building-like boxes climb around the scaffolding.
A glowing box descends, about to block the exit of a pedestrian construction scaffolding that leads out into a sunny day. Spiderwebs, trash, and abstract building-like boxes climb around the scaffolding. Illustration by Dan Fitch.

Dane County skirts meaningful reform and looks to bypass resistance to building a new jail.

This Thursday, August 18, the Dane County Board of Supervisors will tackle a number of conflicting options for the jail consolidation project.

The meeting agenda includes the Dane County Black Caucus’ proposal to build a new $166 million jail tower that would be smaller than in previous plans, and to call for incremental systemic reforms that, if implemented, would address Dane County’s egregious racial disparities and reduce the number of people incarcerated.

If that fails to pass, the County Board has other options to move the new jail project forward—including giving consultant Mead & Hunt another $800,000 to complete revisions to the jail design that the County Board previously requested. A third resolution would authorize borrowing an additional $10 million for the continually increasing construction costs for the jail. But borrowing money requires a “yes” vote from three quarters of the County Board. Proponents of the jail have struggled to muster enough votes to approve more funding, particularly after the April election brought new supervisors to the Board. Instead, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Sheriff Kalvin Barrett have urged supervisors to bypass opposition to the jail on the Board by asking voters to approve the $10 million on a ballot referendum this fall. It only takes a simple majority of the Board to pass the two resolutions needed to create that referendum. 


Though the proposed referendum only asks voters to approve $10 million for the jail, that $10 million would pave the way for the full $176 million new jail project. Do voters understand our options? Probably not, and it sure feels like our elected officials don’t either.

Sheriff and pro-jail supervisors oppose proposal for smaller jail, reforms

Shortly before a scheduled County Board committee meeting on Monday, August 8 (that was ultimately delayed to Thursday, August 11) to introduce the Dane County Black Caucus’ plan for the jail, Sheriff Kalvin Barrett emailed the Board to oppose the proposal. At the Thursday meeting, the plan failed recommendation from the Public Works and Transportation Committee and Public Protection and Judiciary Committee. Only the supervisors who drafted the plan voted for it. This Thursday, August 18, the Caucus’ plan is up for a final vote from the full County Board.

Tone Madison spoke with Dane County Supervisor April Kigeya, who represents District 15 and is one of four members of the Dane County Black Caucus, on Wednesday, August 10. “There’s a lot of people who listen to the sheriff, but his support doesn’t dictate whether this passes or not,” Kigeya says. “I hope people understand that.”

On August 3, Barrett announced that the Sheriff’s Office would start sending people incarcerated in the City-County Building (CCB) jail facility to jails in other counties in order to close the CCB, citing staffing shortages. Kigeya said that Barrett didn’t mention this change during a July 29 meeting that also included County Board chair Patrick Miles.

While Barrett might have authority to move people, the County Board controls the budget that would pay for those transportation and incarceration costs. “If he’s going to transfer people, those funds can’t just come out of thin air,” Kigeya says. “If that money’s not already in the budget, that has to go through the County Board.”

Barrett’s letter opposing the Dane County Black Caucus’ plan did not explain the timing of moving people out of the CCB, but some supervisors that support building a new jail are already using the cost of that change as a talking point against the Caucus’ plan. During the August 11 meeting, Supervisor Andrew Schauer, who works as a staff attorney for the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said, “We have to build a public works project, because otherwise millions will be spent to move people [to other jails] that could go to homelessness, criminal justice reforms, a million different things that we progressives on this Board think we should be spending it on.”

Wait. Back the bus up, supposed pro-jail “progressives.” Your logic is that we must build a jail, because, if we don’t, we’ll have to spend money to move people to jails in other counties? And then we won’t have that money to implement criminal justice reforms or any other of Schauer’s “million different” progressive priorities? That reveals the laughable, contradictory logic at the center of cynical claims that we must build a new jail to meet the demand of future incarceration. If we build a jail under the current plan, that puts Dane County $176 million—plus interest that is already eating away at the county’s budget—in the hole. 

Imagine if we don’t build a new jail. At the time of publication, the Sheriff’s Office had not provided numbers showing the costs of incarcerating people in the CCB compared to the cost of incarcerating them in other county jails. But if we have to pay more per year to move people while we implement needed reforms, is that worse than building a massive $166 million (or $176 million) tower to cement our racial disparities? It is most certainly less expensive. We could cut the jail population, reduce our required jail staffing, avoid building a tower, close the CCB, and leave a large chunk of that $166 million for the “million different things” that Schauer lists. This is exactly what many abolitionist activists have been arguing for. Meanwhile, the ongoing extra transit costs could be considered a positive pressure for our courts and district attorney to implement reforms, as they have in the past.

Despite criticisms from Barrett and some supervisors, Kigeya says the Caucus’ proposal would reduce the number of people incarcerated in Dane County and address the staffing shortages that Barrett pointed to. 

“Well, with our resolution, it addresses that, because you won’t need as much staff with a smaller [jail] population,” says Kigeya. “The point I want to drive home is that, to us, it’s bigger than a jail. It’s important that people [like sheriff deputies] have jobs, but we don’t want people in the jail that don’t need to be there.” Kigeya pointed out that moving people around isn’t a great solution either, as it breaks up families and causes a worsening snowball effect on those impacted.

Digging into Sheriff Barrett’s statement

What are Sheriff Barrett’s actual criticisms of Resolution 136, the Dane County Black Caucus’ proposal for the new jail project? Let’s dive in and take the time to dissect Barrett’s statement with a critical eye, passage by passage.

To: #County Board Recipients <[email protected]>

Subject: Sheriff Response to Resolution 136

Good Evening,

The introduction of Resolution 136 attempts to address the racial disparities found in the Dane County Jail through a commitment to reform and decreased incarceration.  While the goals of the resolution are honorable, it does not accomplish the goal of closing the unsafe and inhumane City County Building (CCB) Jail. 

The plan might achieve those goals, if Dane County systems would actually get to work on decarceration with strategies like: housing people; not holding people on long pre-trial, probation, or parole holds; switching more people to restorative courts; increasing funding to expand the City of Madison’s CARES non-police mental health response program; spinning up the planned Crisis Triage Center; and on and on. As mentioned, it’s even possible—with enough action to reduce incarceration—that we don’t need to build a new jail tower at all.


If the Caucus’ plan passes the full County Board this Thursday, August 18, says Kigeya, “We’ll start the bidding process for the construction of the jail, and go to partners we’ve started to talk to already [about reforms].” 

Kigeya acknowledges that, like past resolutions urging reforms of Dane County’s criminal punishment system, there are limits to the County Board’s power over other officials. But, Kigeya says, “It’s in the interests of everybody to implement those changes.” And the resolution can open the door to further actions by the County Board as well. “In budget season, we might have to allocate funds, for example, for weekend court. We can’t do any of that until the resolution is passed,” Kigeya says. 

And when it comes to holding other officials accountable? “[People ask], how are you going to make sure the partners do X, Y, and Z?” Kigeya says. “We have to take it one step at a time. It’s just very frustrating that we’re receiving so much criticism, when other resolutions have gotten not this same level of criticism from the Board. We want our colleagues and the public to dig through it, read it, and ask questions. But the way we’re being questioned just feels a little off.”

The sheriff’s statement manages to criticize the Caucus’ proposal without engaging with any of the plan’s details. How much would each of their suggested reforms reduce the number of people held in jail? Barrett doesn’t venture a guess, and like the pro-jail caucus on the County Board, just assumes the jail population will climb, climb, climb. This is disingenuous fearmongering—and an alarming vision for the future of mass incarceration in Dane County.

The Dane County Jail Consolidation Project continuously studied for years and subject to resolutions that have reduced the bed capacity (from 1013 to 922 to 825) faces yet another bed count reduction resolution.  The reduction of bed count to 725 is not supported by any jail population forecasts and is in fact contrary to our current climbing jail population.  There is no evidence to indicate we will be able to close the CCB Jail at the completion of the proposed 725 bed facility. Resolution 136 ultimately extends the life of the CCB Jail.

The jail is not some illusory sky-castle filled with people whom the sheriff and these systems don’t control. Although the sheriff, courts, and district attorney seem to treat our average jail population like a force of nature, they have power to change it. Remember, consultants Mead & Hunt drew a jail population prediction curve in their planning—that was a straight line—and they were completely wrong. (Thanks, COVID-19?) The DA, courts, and sheriff could all change the jail population in a number of ways with their policy decisions. The Dane County Black Caucus plan suggests some possible policy changes, but the sheriff is essentially operating on the assumption that we’re not committing to any of that.

Barrett claims “the reduction of bed count to 725 is not supported by any jail population forecasts.” 

Kigeya says, “[Barrett’s] comment about how the proposal is not supported by any data is false.” James Austin, the JFA Institute consultant who has been working with Dane County, has repeatedly explained that halving the jail population is entirely possible, although it would take a lot of work from our systems.

For a quick example: The Dane County Criminal Justice Council has been talking to La Crosse County officials about their experience with the Huber program, a work-release program for incarcerated people. La Crosse halved its average jail population since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now expects to keep it that way. Previous Dane County Executive Kathy Falk championed these kinds of changes here over 15 years ago. While we have made temporary reductions in population—partially thanks to the pandemic slowdown—La Crosse County made its reductions permanent. And it’s still leading the decarceration charge. We should be taking those ideas and running with them, but we’re not.

In the second half of this paragraph, the sheriff claims there is “no evidence” the Black Caucus’ plan “will be able to close the CCB Jail.” But he gives no evidence for the inverse: why won’t we be able to do this plan and close the CCB? The only evidence given is that he’s not going to help with any reforms, and that’s true. If we can’t do any of these reforms, nothing will change.

“Addressing disparities is what makes the 725 beds work,” Kigeya says. “I think people are hung up on the physical number. They’re thinking, ‘the population’s not going to support that.’ The point we’re trying to make is that people who are in there right now, don’t need to be there.”

Kigeya questioned Barrett’s response (or lack of it) to that point: “I’m just curious. Is he saying he and his partners are not willing to work with us and reduce those disparities?”

Here’s the sheriff again:

Resolution 136 proposes reducing the bed capacity to incentivize stakeholders to implement justice reforms.  There is no evidence to indicate stakeholders will be incentivized to implement justice reforms under the threat of building an unsafe overcapacity jail.  An overcapacity jail does nothing to “reduce the current racial inequity in our jail” but instead furthers those inequities through housing residents in an unsafe and inhumane jail (overcrowding or keeping the CCB Jail open).  Delays completing this project are adding to the climbing costs.  The stalling of Resolution 320 has already increased the cost of the project by millions and if Resolution 136 is passed, could cost the project more as its savings and costs are unknown.  The unknown costs of resolution 136 risks pushing the project further over budget and delays the closing of the CCB.

The sheriff claims that the Dane County Black Caucus’ plan to reduce the number of beds will lead to incarcerating people in an “unsafe overcapacity jail.” While at the same time, Barrett is ignoring the power of the Sheriff’s Office to implement some of the very reforms that would reduce the number of people incarcerated and prevent overcrowding—both in a hypothetical new jail, and in the current CCB.

Right here, plain as day, Barrett says that stakeholders won’t be incentivized to implement justice reforms. This is the core problem we’re up against! How do we “incentivize” the courts, the district attorney, and the sheriff to hold less people in jail, especially marginalized folks? Everything the County Board has been doing for the last decade hasn’t worked, as disparities grow worse. Last Thursday (August 11), Supervisor Engelberg said, “We really need to separate the two issues, building the jail and reforming the system.” But this is clearly wrong: these two things are tightly tied together. Building the largest possible jail is the exact opposite of reforming the system.

Let’s be frank: a huge chunk of our jail is holding people who are pre-trial—whether it’s because they can’t afford bail, or because a probation/parole officer has issued a potentially arbitrary hold. This is rarely about anyone’s safety. The criminal legal system will claim pre-trial holds are necessary to prevent bail jumping, but it’s at least partly about coercing plea deals out of people. In 2021, for felony cases, 63 percent of people in Dane County took a plea deal before trial, and 34 percent of cases were dismissed before trial. (The numbers are similar for misdemeanor cases.)

Judges in Dane County could get together tomorrow and decide to no longer bury poor people under cash bail. Cash bail is freedom for the rich, and jail for the poor. How does that add up to justice? If judges consider someone a danger to others, that person doesn’t have the option to pay cash bail right now, and they still wouldn’t if cash bail was taken off the table. Remember: cash bail in Wisconsin is legally only for the purpose of ensuring someone is at their trial. If judges released more people from jail who are currently being held pre-trial or on probationary holds, that would be a huge boon to many marginalized folks, who presently make up the majority of our jail population.

The Sheriff’s Office also has complete control over moving people between jail facilities, within and outside of Dane County. If the Sheriff’s Office uses that power for coercion or punishment, we have no way to know; there is no oversight and no clear data about those moves.

While Sheriff Barrett likes to hint during meetings that it’s the County Board’s fault for delaying a new jail, consultant architectural incompetence and supply chain issues have increased project costs more than delays by decision makers. Barrett’s (and former Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney’s) refusal to consider alternative plans, while staunchly pushing for the biggest jail, has also been a major factor. If the original $76 million plan to add floors to the Public Safety Building had worked, we likely wouldn’t still be arguing in circles. But that building, although intended to be extensible when it was originally built in the 1990s, is not able to support more floors

Meanwhile, the county keeps throwing money at architectural consultants Mead & Hunt to plan the jail tower—$12 million and climbing—and they continuously can’t come in within budget. How are we sure this kind of consultant incompetence won’t continue?

Inaction enables Dane County’s current racial disparities

Sheriff Barrett says:

The National Institute of Corrections Jail Planning Guide notes that “planning often begins with a crisis.” The CCB Jail was recognized as a crisis years ago resulting in a needs assessment, program development, project definition, and an implementation plan. It also notes that the best planning starts long before the jail is overflowing. Resolution 136 not only ignores the CCB Jail crisis (extends its life) but it also intentionally plans to create another crisis (overflowing jail).

The Dane County Black Caucus plan includes some of the many reform options that would help get people out of the jail. Their goal is explicitly to reduce the jail population so that we can close the CCB. But here, the sheriff claims the Black Caucus members ignore that crisis—while completely ignoring all of their ideas to address it. There may be reasons why Barrett sees their plan as incompatible with closing the CCB floors, but he doesn’t explain any of those reasons… one of which is his own refusal to engage with any alternative ideas.

It’s important to remember that fixing the racial disparities in our carceral system is not the job of the Dane County Black Caucus, or the County Board as a whole, or even of the populace of Dane County. It is literally the job of the district attorney and the courts and the sheriff, all working together, to fix the problem they’ve built and change the narrative. They haven’t. They have failed. They are the ones who have led us to this crisis point.

So far, voters and the County Board have failed to hold them to account for that failure. No progressive candidates ran against the sheriff on transformative justice platforms in last week’s August 9 election, and it was just as disappointing to see District Attorney Ismael Ozanne run unopposed in 2020.

If the Dane County Black Caucus plan builds a five-story jail tower, what is stopping Dane County from reducing our jail population while closing the CCB? Only the sheriff and our stubborn criminal legal system stand in the way.

If the County Board can’t make a decision, and our consultants keep screwing up and going over budget, what is stopping our judges, our district attorney, and our sheriff from finding ways to fix the crisis sooner? Officials have had a decade to figure out how to close the CCB. This is definitely not all on the current sheriff. Every angle of our criminal legal system can impact who we keep in jail.

The sheriff claims this plan ignores the crisis. However, if we demand less incarceration, and we beg our courts and DA and sheriff to fix things, but then let them build a new tower that will be used to incarcerate 1.4% or more of the Black people that live in Dane County, that’s a real problem. That’s really ignoring, and enabling, the crisis. “This is the way we’ve always done it” should not be an acceptable answer.

Misrepresenting and ignoring proposed reforms

Sheriff Barrett continues:

As the Dane County Sheriff, I have a sworn duty to take charge and custody of the jail maintained by the county and the persons in the jail.  This can only be accomplished by maintaining a safe, secure, and humane facility.  I will not jeopardize the safety of staff, residents, contracted employees, and visitors in an overcapacity facility or through the continued use of the CCB Jail. 

There’s no such thing as a humane jail, but some jails are more inhumane than others. Everyone on all sides of this issue agrees that the CCB space should be closed. Here, Barrett implies the Dane County Black Caucus plan wants to keep the CCB floors open, which is completely untrue. The fact that we’ve failed to close that space for this long, while everyone else in power passes the blame around, should be a mark of shame. But building a $166 million jail tower as a supposed solution would be an even bigger shame.

Implying the Caucus’ plan somehow intends to “jeopardize the safety” of anyone is laughable, but Barrett again incorrectly equates their plan with maintaining an “overcapacity facility.” The plan’s goal is to get the criminal legal system to cut the jail population. 

At the combined August 11 meeting, Supervisor Dana Pellebon made an impassioned plea:

We know when our Republican former governor is saying that larger jails are not the solution, that what we have done is not what we need to do going forward. And then, the most progressive city, county in the state is going, “Nah, what we actually need to do is build a bigger jail.” C’mon y’all, that just doesn’t make sense to me. […]

We need to reduce the population. A smaller jail is one part of it. If we work hard, and talk to our partners, then we don’t need a 825 person jail facility, because we will have done the job that we keep saying we want to do.

Otherwise, we’re good with where it is we’re at. And if that’s where you’re at, I truly don’t have a response to that. Because the whole point of what we’re saying is that everything has got to change. We’ve got to reimagine. We’ve got to push these numbers down. We’ve got to be who we say we are. And I need us to be who we say we are.

For contrast, let’s return to how the sheriff closed his email.

I am dedicated to working closely with the Black Caucus, the Dane County Board and all other Dane County criminal justice stakeholders to implement policies and practices that eliminate racial disparities.  We must all work in a collaborative effort to find practical and sustainable solutions.  Coercive strategies proposed in Resolution 136 are ineffective and will continue to jeopardize the safety and security of everyone, including, black residents, black deputies, black professional staff and black volunteers in the Dane County Jail.

Barrett talks a big game about collaboration, but you can read in this very letter that he refuses to engage with this plan. Barrett talks about “practical solutions” but suggests no methods to decrease any part of the population in the jail. Why would he? Investing in incarceration by building a new jail ensures the biggest budget and the most power for the Sheriff’s Office. 

Pay close attention to Barrett’s last sentence here. “Coercive strategies proposed in Resolution 136…” The sheriff is complaining that this plan feels like a “coercive strategy.” Oh, the irony. Most of the coercion on display has been from the pro-carceral lobby trying to force us all into this one evidence-free idea that we must build an expensive jail.

Non-coercive strategies have done nothing. Maybe it’s time for the Board to take the sheriff’s hint here, put on their big-person pants, and actually coerce change by pulling the purse strings tighter. Maybe there’s some positively coercive path to go down, where we can give big cash prizes to people with power to change carceral policy when they actually make changes that reduce racial disparities or our total carceral population.

If Sheriff Barrett was really interested in safety, he would follow the research that shows that “noncustodial sanctions,” also known as “not putting people in cages and working with them in other ways,” is safer than incarceration. In comparison, “incarceration appears to have a null or mildly criminogenic effect.” Here, “null effect” means jail does nothing, and we’d be just fine with other options. “Criminogenic” means that jail causes a “crime” feedback loop, generating more incarceration. Great for people who make their money from the carceral state, but not great for the rest of us!

Instead of actually engaging with real public safety or any reforms, this letter shows us that Barrett is going to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into any plans for decarceration.

It is for all the above reasons, I cannot support Resolution 136.

Kalvin D. Barrett
Sheriff Kalvin D. Barrett (He/Him/His)
Sheriff of Dane County
115 W. Doty St
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 284- 6800 

Character, Competence, Compassion, Courage, Communication

Some folks—like Supervisors Schauer, Dave Ripp, and Michael Engelberger, who all claim to be pushing the sensible fiscal option—say we must build the jail exactly as the sheriff says. In doing that, despite their statements otherwise, they’re just agreeing to keep building up Dane County’s racial disparities. And so are the rest of us, unless we start forcing our systems to fix themselves.

While it’s strange to find ourselves agreeing with the sheriff, abolitionist activists in the meeting also could not fully support Resolution 136—but for hugely different reasons. We agree with its reforms, but we believe the County Board could go much further to hold our awful criminal legal system to account for its racial disparities. Dane County should take a stronger tack and not build anything at all that props up a racialized human caging program, while working to decarcerate using every means possible. 

Apparently, we’re going to have to try to do all that while working around a very uncollaborative sheriff.

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