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Misframing decisions about the County jail does the public a disservice

Dismantling is difficult. Making the same mistakes is easy.

Dismantling is difficult. Making the same mistakes is easy.

Illustration: A dotted purple cube opens up and a series of smaller purple cubes escape it, over a picture of 2020 protests near the jail in downtown Madison, with the street and sidewalks full of people. A sign reads “EXIT”. Illustration by Dan Fitch. Photo by Oona Mackesey-Green.

Capital Times editor Paul Fanlund recently wrote about the ongoing Dane County Jail project chaos, bemoaning the fact that his 2019 column arguing that a “smaller, safer Dane County jail is within reach” turned out to be wrong. But it’s not far wrong: we could have a smaller Dane County jail without spending millions, and that could be safer for our community. We just need to close down the unsafe City-County Building (CCB) jail facility floors in downtown Madison and work to keep fewer people in jail. Even experts like James Austin from JFA (a consultant Dane County has been paying to help guide the new jail consolidation) say it’s quite possible to cut our jail population in half. But it takes hard work and deep thinking.

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Fanlund claims this issue is “dividing Dane County’s traditional left against its increasingly influential far left.” But these oft-repeated claims that the “far left” is “increasingly influential” in Madison have no basis in fact. There are, at most, two County Board supervisors who could be termed “far left.” If the “far left” had this supposed influence and power on the County Board, the 2020 resolution calling for a halt to the jail project would have passed, and this debate would have been settled long ago, with the County free to invest the money in actual addiction care, mental health programs, and housing.

What’s really happening is a symptom of the difficulty of dismantling or even cutting back our carceral systems; we experience it as disagreement over setting large amounts of money on fire to build a new jail. What we end up seeing is gridlock and indecision: an indication that few County Board members are actually prepared to spend these millions on a jail.

On January 11, 2021 RES-320 was introduced in the County’s Public Works and Transportation Committee by right-leaning County Board members to add another $24 million to the already-approved $148 million jail consolidation project budget, and 2021 RES-319 to throw $782,000 more at consultant Mead & Hunt. Similar increases failed to pass during County Board budget deliberations in November 2021. This ongoing indecision is likely a good thing, not some spooky alarm bell of a “far left” disorder. The real winners are the consultants who’ve been pocketing millions and millions of dollars for decades to plan.

Here’s the thing: moderates need more self-awareness about blind spots. Fanlund talks about the “far left,” but does not actually quote anyone from the left. Parisi is the furthest left person he talks to, and his other two interviews include the current and previous County Sheriffs. Frankly, our Sheriffs should not be considered “left,” as they work for what we on the left would call the “punishment bureaucracy.” It is in their business model to increase jail populations. Consider the perverse incentives of our societal systems: a Sheriff’s department gets more money and more jobs the more people they lock up. We should not be listening uncritically to voices in our warped criminal punishment system, all while whining about an increasingly influential “far left” who don’t get anything beyond passing mentions in all of these articles about jail consolidation plans.

Fanlund says he has been convinced “that the jail has become as much about treating mental health problems and addiction as about simply locking up bad guys.” Now that sounds almost like a far left position, if you take that “bad guys” label as irony that dropped its air quotes. It’s true! Not everyone in jail is a “bad guy” or even technically guilty despite our systems often acting like that’s the jail’s function. If our jail is a holding place for “bad people,” that’s… bad.

Now let’s dance backward to the bit about treating mental health problems and addiction. It sounds like those on the moderate left and far left can agree this is really the most important part. If moderates in Dane County really feel that locking people in jail is a good way to treat mental health problems and addiction, they should start listening to the experts and reading the research literature. Jails treating mental health? That’s a position held by reactionaries with their heads in the sand, who would rather just put people behind bars and call it a day.

Fanlund and moderates are partly correct in that the discussion about the jail is as much about “treating mental health problems and addiction” as it is about locking people up. Jailing people is one of the worst ways to actually treat mental health issues. Jails and prisons exacerbate mental health issues. Jails do not “treat” mental health or solve problems in any way. Think of problems you’ve personally dealt with in your life, or difficult issues with your family members. Would any of those problems be improved by confining you in a cell and taking away your basic freedoms while you await trial? Would much good come from coerced psychiatric treatment? Real addiction treatment does not involve confinement, and should be voluntary whenever possible. The only “problems” our jail is designed to solve are twofold—to hold poor people so they don’t miss trial, and to hide the rotting roots of our real societal problems behind bland cement.

Fanlund does correctly summarize the “far left” perspective: “big spending on jail space is itself inhumane and leads to higher incarceration rates.” We cannot afford to let our criminal punishment systems run haywire when they already have such absurd biases against marginalized people. Sheriff Kalvin Barrett said to Fanlund, “I would always put humanity first.” In that case, if Dane County truly cares about humanity, we need to continue to work to reduce our jail population and increase our options for housing, mental health care, and addiction treatment outside of the jail. We can’t claim to put humanity first when we’re buying the bricks to put more poor people in cages.

We can’t keep caging people at absurd rates with absurd racial biases. Making mistakes? It happens. But to keep making the same mistake, by thinking our jails are “treating” people or making us safer, is more than misguided. It is deranged. We must try different paths. We have to get everyone excited to spend money on actual care and treatment, and push our leaders to continue to rethink our punishment bureaucracy and actual public safety instead of just mixing more cement to hide our issues behind.

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