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The Dane County Board pairs more jail funding with toothless calls for reform

Another absurd, expensive, and politically craven turn in the drawn-out quest to build new cages.

Another absurd, expensive, and politically craven turn in the drawn-out quest to build new cages.

Header image: Architectural renderings of the planned facade and floor plan of the jail are layered over one another and processed through a series of filters. 

On March 3, the Dane County Board Of Supervisors met again about spending millions more on a shiny new jail tower. It felt like deja vu; the zombie decision back again, laboriously shambling through the Board’s changing politics. We were just here two weeks before, for $24 million. We were here in January, back when the initial push for $24 million started. We were here in budget season last October ($23 million, failed). We’ve been here many times in the last 10 years. It sounded similar: this time, everyone who showed up to speak testified in opposition to increased funding, except ex-sheriff Dave Mahoney and a few representatives of the Dane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. (If you’d like to simulate a slowly growing brain tumor you can watch the meeting here yourself.) And while the County Board did end up borrowing $16 million more for the jail, the Jail Consolidation Project seems to be barely stumbling forward.

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Two weeks prior, on February 17, proponents of a new jail claimed once again that the County needed to allocate $24 million more on top of the previously reserved $148 million to build a planned 7-story tower to replace the aging Dane County Jail—especially the problematic sixth and seventh floors located in the City-County Building (CCB)—in downtown Madison. After the resolution came to the Board out of the County’s Personnel & Finance Committee “without recommendation,” Supervisor Andrew Schauer and the “shovels in the ground” caucus didn’t get enough support for the vague $24 million increase in their resolution, known as RES-320, and instead voted 22-17 to postpone for two weeks.

A substitute resolution to RES-320 from Supervisor Michele Doolan was mentioned as a better plan at the end of the February 17 meeting, and the postponers claimed that was their new target at the time. But that substitute added only pointless reports that had no teeth and no actual effect on the jail plans. Another new substitute to RES-320 emerged March 2—one day before the meeting—that was not on the original agenda. This new substitute was longer, asked for “only” $16 million instead of $24 million, and contained several non-enforceable “urges” for reform. Repeatedly during the March 3 meeting, County Board Supervisors would remind each other that all they could legally do was “suggest” and “urge,” even though they hold the purse strings that control what money actually gets spent, and they could choose to not fund things until demands are met. But that would require the courage to actually use the power of the purse strings the Board controls.

Due to this substitute’s rather sudden reveal, Supervisor Mike Bare and others tried to postpone the vote by two weeks again, citing the fact that the substitute came out less than 48 hours before the meeting. But the “shovels in the ground” caucus had enough votes to keep it on the agenda this time. Supervisor Schauer said that they provided the substitute with as much time as they “possibly could,” claiming the four pages of text contained “nothing we haven’t seen before.”

Some Supervisors played stupid about why folks would want to support postponing when they didn’t support postponing RES-320 originally. But that’s just simple politics: in the previous meeting, the cage-builders didn’t have the votes to push through the $24 million at the 3/4 majority vote required to pass a budget amendment, so those against building the giant jail wanted to keep it on the agenda. That way it could be directly voted down, and the cycle of endlessly tweaked resolutions for more money could end. In the intervening weeks, just enough “reform” red meat was thrown to a few Supervisors to make this borrowing of $16 million “palatable,” as Supervisor Matt Veldran called it, despite County Executive Joe Parisi asking the Board back in January to avoid more borrowing.

Despite early claims from current “shovels in the ground” leader Supervisor Schauer that “we’ve reached a good place and we should vote on it tonight,” the Supervisors went on to spend several hours (after an hour of public comment mostly in opposition) on amendments to the substitute amendment. More progressive Supervisors like Bare, Yogesh Chawla, Elizabeth Doyle, and Heidi Wegleitner tried to milk some concessions from the sunk-cost shovel-in-the-ground head-in-the-sand crew that is currently in the majority on the board. Chawla did manage to pass an amendment to earmark $75,000 of the $16 million for ongoing consulting efforts aimed at reducing the jail population. 

It’s important to point out that while many citizens spoke against the jail, those who registered in support were invariably tied to the Sheriff’s Office in some way. Legistar (the county’s terribly difficult-to-use tracking system for government meetings) does not contain the details yet for the March 3 or February 17 registrants, so we can’t check to see who registered in support but did not speak. But the list was posted for the Personnel and Finance meeting on RES-320 where it left without recommendation, and all but one of the 32 people in support were either deputies, family members of deputies, or people with other ties to the Sheriff. Granted, people who work in the jail are the people who see these “inhumane” CCB floors on a daily basis, and should be pushing for solutions. But we have to ask, why are cops and their allies practically the only people pushing for this solution for more and more money, when it seems like almost all other public registrants are against it? 

Many from the public who spoke in opposition of building the jail during the public comment period actually did favor many of the new substitute’s not-demands—let’s call them “loose hints of policy suggestions,” perhaps. One interesting possibility that the Criminal Justice Council (CJC) had LaCrosse County Officials present on in December 2020 involves moving the Huber work-release program (or something similar, since Huber programs have certain requirements under various state statutes) to a human services-based model.

Supervisor Wegleitner tried to home in on more specific policies for this possible conversion of the Huber work-release diversion program into a human services-based (and funded) approach.

This would take it out from under the Sheriff’s purview, but staff counsel seemed unprepared to answer questions about any Huber changes. Wegleitner said, “We really need to get out of the business of punishment.” Supervisor Doolan claimed this push was too far, too fast, saying, “We have to be very intentional about how we move forward.” And of course the majority of the County Board slowed down on reform, shooting down Wegleitner’s amendment while claiming they didn’t have enough information. Meanwhile, they keep smashing the gas pedal for this jail borrowing without a finished plan, failing to listen to consultants who say reducing the jail population is very possible. So they put more gas in the toxic car. Get in loser, we’re gonna build more cages for people that the Sheriff, during his comments at the March 3 meeting, referred to as “justice-involved individuals.”

Late in the meeting, Chawla asked Sheriff Kalvin Barrett point-blank if he would commit to doing everything in his power to eliminate (and transition) the Huber work-release program to operate under the umbrella of the county’s Department of Human Services, as the substitute attempts to recommend. Barrett would only say he was committed to “having conversations and exploring all options before making a decision,” making it quite clear he would not commit, and that he reserves the right to fight that attempt at reform later on down this dusty road.

Schauer claimed during the attempt to postpone that the resolution’s promises to continue the conversation should be enough for people. “If we’re trying to fix the entire criminal justice system in one resolution, we’ll be talking about [that] until the end of time. We will never ever get to putting a shovel in the ground on this project,” Schauer said. Yes! You got it. It’s true that we can’t “fix” the entire system. That’s exactly the point of folks (like me) who have been coming to the meetings to say: “Don’t put a shovel in the ground for a jail. That does not help keep us safe. Put a shovel in the ground on projects that actually help care for our communities.” 

But every time people who want to move away from punishment try to be intentional—with, for example, the so-called Doyle resolution from the summer of 2020—the County Board ends up shooting it down or sidelining any discussion of the attempt. 

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So, at quarter to midnight on March 3, needing 28 votes, the Board voted 29-7 to pass the slightly-modified substitute amendment to 2021 RES-320, borrowing another $16 million to build a 6-story tower. (The text as modified during the meeting is still not available.) All the while the Board toothlessly “urges” and “encourages” our criminal punishment system to maybe consider certain reforms. If County Executive Joe Parisi signs this resolution, and he probably will, it seems in direct conflict with his public position in January, when he stated that the County should not borrow more money, and floated the idea of putting this question directly to the voters as a referendum.

Even now, this resolution still doesn’t put a shovel in the ground or cause any reforms to actually happen. It just borrows $16 million more for a tower that we don’t have plans for, and sets a little aside for consulting. We still have to hold feet to the fire to get any real reforms that go further than calling people in our cages “residents.” Mead & Hunt (the architectural consultants who have made about $13 million from this zombie decade of jail planning so far) had been working on a 7-story tower plan, aiming for 95% completion of the plan in May. The architects will now have to switch tracks again and lop off a story. (Expect them to grab for more cash, as well.)

The Board is hoping this is the last time they borrow more money for this project. But if Mead & Hunt can’t design a 6-story tower within the currently allocated borrowing of $164 million, the Board will be back, once again arguing that we just need another little top-up to build these shiny new cages. And if this process doesn’t get started before January 2023, $74 million of the bond authority times out. That puts us most of the way back to square one, or at least to before 2019 when the jail costs doubled.

Although reformists might be satisfied with one less floor and around 100 less beds than the previous plan, this is a loss for the abolitionists who wanted other solutions to get people out of the inhumane sixth and seventh floors of the CCB. The County Board failed to force our criminal punishment system to come up with any other options. Chair Analiese Eicher wrote a letter in January considering a more modest four-story building that only replaced the CCB, but that idea fell by the wayside. All told, this lame-duck borrowing push was still barely successful, and it really does leave the project up in the air as the future post-election Board must actually sign off on any plans and contracts.

We can still close the “inhumane” CCB portion of the jail faster than the four or more years it will take to build this semi-planned tower, but it may take the Board using its budget power more directly to force our systems to come up with alternate plans. Supervisor Wegleitner told Tone Madison: “[The Board] are so ready and coached and brainwashed to think we’re powerless… We passed a budget! That’s our job! We’re supposed to make policies and legislate, and even in that realm people think we can’t touch the Sheriff’s budget. It’s just really disturbing.”

The Sheriff still doesn’t provide a daily or even monthly  data summary of how many people are incarcerated in the “inhumane” CCB over any given period of time; the JFA consultants mentioned in meetings last fall that these numbers had stayed obscure due to opacity from the Sheriff’s department. Wegleitner told Tone Madison that when she talked to some Sheriff’s deputies, they told her they often move people between the City-County Building and Public Safety Building portions of the jail without knowing why. “Those decisions seem to be made in the dark,” she said. “I know I’ve visited clients—elderly, sick, and vulnerable folks, who couldn’t hurt anyone—in the CCB.”

The fact is, Dane County’s supposed focus has been on closing the “inhumane” CCB for all this time, without really knowing the details of how many people are in there, or how the population there has changed during the pandemic. A quick tally of the “residents” listing as of March 6 shows that of the 774 caged folks in the two remaining Dane County Jail facilities, 263 are in CCB. 157 of those are pre-trial. Interestingly, the ratio of pre-trial folks in CCB is 60 percent, while it is only 44 percent for those in the Public Safety Building. Why are jail officials putting more folks pre-trial in the “inhumane” facility?

Numbers aside, there are better things to build than an expensive new jail, like housing for homeless people and real mental health support for our citizens. Wegleitner told Tone Madison she plans to bring back some plans from years ago. One idea is providing a housing-centered approach for the homeless people in our jail, an idea she raised back in 2019 when the borrowing for the jail doubled. On any given day, we have 100 to 125 people experiencing homelessness locked up in cages, with 335 people who have cycled in and out 10 or more times in the last three years. Expecting jail and punishment to help solve this problem is exactly backwards. Providing housing would be cheaper than building and staffing cages, and hopefully more Supervisors are on board with the shouldn’t-sound-radical solution of giving safe homes to people who don’t have them. Wegleitner said we may consider converting the no-longer-in-use Ferris Center for either housing (sourced to a local nonprofit) or for the possible Huber replacement program. 

Another idea she’s tried before is working to get impacted individuals onto Criminal Justice Council subcommittees. Wegleitner says, “If we can’t even support a proposal to add people with lived experience, how are we going to get anything else to change?” Those committees have produced a lot of reports over the years, but not enough recommendations for legislation… and still no actual racial breakdown of those who are assigned cash bail, or even a demographic breakdown of who is in jail that hasn’t paid their bail. (We need to stop and think, every time someone deploys the oft-repeated talking point that 80 percent of people aren’t assigned cash bail in Dane County because we’re so great: what about the other 20 percent of people? Are they treated fairly? We don’t know!) 

In the end, the blind brain-dead push forward to put a shovel in the ground on a tower of cages without giving any teeth to reforms is really our supposedly liberal county standing up and saying that the current racially biased status quo is juuuust fine with us. Despite all the continued community uproar around this, our County Board pushed this additional spending through right before the spring election. The Supervisors who backed this resolution should feel shame. They won’t. That’s the problem with racial capitalism; they don’t even see themselves doing it.

As long as the tower hasn’t been built, and there still isn’t a shovel in the ground, we can hope that newer members on the Board and current Supervisors interested in actual reforms decide to change course to invest in care, not cages. Instead of digging, we can pick up a shovel and smack this zombie project in the head. The millions are not spent yet, only borrowed. The tower is still imaginary. And our collective imagination can do better.

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