The Dane County Jail project heads toward a crucial vote

As the County Board once again takes up the bloated project, don’t trust the powers that be on punishment.
An illustration shows a bird's-eye view of several blocks of downtown Madison in black and white. Superimposed upon it is an orange cube that shows the site of a proposed new jail building.
Illustration by Tone Madison/source image from architectural renderings showing the proposed site of the new jail tower in downtown Madison. Image description: An illustration shows a bird’s-eye view of several blocks of downtown Madison in black and white. Superimposed upon it is an orange cube that shows the site of a proposed new jail building.

As the County Board once again takes up the bloated project, don’t trust the powers that be on punishment.

Pro-jail forces think they have the votes to push through a confusingly worded resolution providing $13.5 million more in funding for a new Dane County Jail building, bringing the total estimated price tag for the project up to $179 million, during a Thursday, April 20 meeting of the Dane County Board of Supervisors. But nothing is a foregone conclusion. We’ve all been riding this hellish carousel around and around as costs go up. We’re all confused as to why County Executive Joe Parisi vetoed the slightly smaller jail plan the Board passed last November. We’re all frustrated. There’s no telling what kind of political maneuvering is still to come. But we need to demand our county supervisors keep fighting for better investments in community and care, and less investment in punishment.

The powers that be want involved citizens and activists to give up, so that Sheriff Kalvin Barrett can just have the shiny new $179 million jail tower he and his predecessor, Dave Mahoney, have been lobbying for—a tower that will cost so much more to operate over the course of the next 20 years and destroy lives along the way. (Unsurprisingly, nobody at the county level has drafted an estimate of the future operating costs of these plans.) As the County Board prepares for another vote on funding this, let’s revisit the problems and contradictions the jail project has presented all along. You can learn more about the organizing efforts against a new jail on our just-launched podcast series, Inhumane Dane, and catch up with previous coverage of the project here on Tone Madison.

The impacted

You can track our county’s everyday commitment to racist incarceration here. As of April 16, there are 422 Black people and 392 white people in our jails. There are 669 people total “under roof” in Dane County’s jail facilities, but 719 if you count those “reallocated” to other facilities. In the past six months since Sheriff Barrett announced the “shipping” of those “residents,” around 60 people have been steadily bussed to other county jails at taxpayer expense. Of those 719 folks, 395 are pre-trial in some stage, so they are technically “innocent until proven guilty,” a phrase that has never been applied evenly in our country. 


As a reminder that we shouldn’t listen blindly to what the current Sheriff wants, then-Dane County Sheriff Gary Hamblin wanted to expand the jail’s capacity to 1,639 jail beds in 2006. After that, he went on to become part of Scott Walker’s “A+ cabinet.” 

As James Austin from JFA Institute (a consulting firm hired by Dane County) has repeatedly explained to the County Board and its committees: If we fix our racial disparities, we would only need to plan for 500 people in the jail as the maximum going forward. If we arrested Black people at a similar rate to non-Black people, most of this problem would simply disappear; so that problem goes back to who gets policed.

If the US continues the weak path to reforms we’re currently on, a return to 1972 levels of incarceration will take until the year 2098. Our jail is the entry point, locally, into that massive prison pipeline.

If Barrett gets his way, the average Dane County taxpayer will spend over $1,000 total over the next 20 years just to pay the debt service to build the $179 million tower. But on top of that cost, we will each also spend at least an additional $5,000 in total to staff it over those years. With no evidence that this investment in punishment keeps us safe, this all adds up to a bad idea. What could we build instead? Why are we here?

Nonsense in circles

If you stop and pay attention, every argument for the jail is nonsensical in some way. In fact, most pro-jail voices don’t even try to justify their plan, this many years in. We are asked to take things on faith—things for which we are shown zero evidence. Most of the discourse just feels like being told, “Well, we’ve done it like this forever, this is the way it has to work.” But Wisconsin’s jail population only started spiking around 1980. People weren’t always held pre-trial in such numbers. There are people alive today who remember a time before mass incarceration.

In his memos, County Executive Parisi tries to sound like the only adult in the room. We’re just doing the sensible thing, he implies. But why is it a good idea to stay stuck in harmful, racist policy choices?

The pro-jail voices claim that Dane County has to build a new jail to avoid being sued, because conditions in the current jail are so wretched. This is perhaps the most believable reason given, at first. But deputies’ December 2020 assault on Jimmie Joshua at the jail is an example of something that actually has led to a lawsuit, and a shiny new building won’t stop abuses like that. (There have still been zero consequences made public for anyone involved in or overseeing that assault. An Inhumane Dane podcast episode with Jimmie telling his story is coming soon.) Instead of building a tower that will still cause us to get sued for abuses like that, we should find other ways to close more of the problematic City-County Building (CCB) wings of the jail, instead of continuing to imprison people pre-trial.

Some supervisors are exasperated, saying that we’ve been going around and around on this too long. That’s not a reason to build a jail, that’s how you feel. We all feel exhausted by this discourse. And maybe we’ve been going around and around for a reason? Maybe there are other options we should be considering, but aren’t, because you’re so focused on building the tower.

Many of the people clamoring to get shovels in the ground and start building this jail project claim we must have a big jail to keep us safe. But no science shows that the increased jailing we do in America makes us safer. Most studies show that jails actually have an overall negative impact on real public safety. Of course, we have yet to hear any “shovels in the ground” caucus member speak to this.

Some say we need to build a jail because the population is exploding in Dane County. Or because of some other future prediction. But crime is not a wellspring. It does not automatically rise with population. Its “source” can almost always be traced back to inequality and desperate, traumatized people. When the state of Wisconsin criminalized abortion, nobody jumped up to say, “We better build a bigger jail for all those women we’re gonna have to arrest!” So don’t listen to anyone who claims that the population or Republican state legislators’ proposed changes to bail should require us to build a bigger jail, either. These are all things we can address with other policy changes.

Some self-proclaimed progressives claim that we simply need to build a humane jail. Bad news: there is no such thing as a humane jail. The real humane goal should be to get as many people out of the jail pre-trial as we can, and to fix our racially biased punishment system.

Proponents of the new jail often imply that activists opposing it are taking an unreasonable stance, and that we have to build this for pragmatic Grown Up Adult reasons. Then why are we paying more money than it would cost to just house and give real medical and mental health care to the many homeless folks cycling in and out of the jail? We waste money this way to prop up the power our police state wields and to make rich realtors happy. It doesn’t make us safer and it wastes money and resources that could be spent on something better.


The folks who work in our criminal punishment systems think they’re doing good work. Keeping us safe. And maybe some of the time, they are. But most of the time, they’re just perpetuating problems instead of dealing with root causes. It’s clear that mass incarceration does not make us safer. It’s a failed experiment, and our jail is the entry point into its jaws. Alternately, you can say, as many activists do, that it’s working just how it is supposed to: crushing the poor and most marginalized. Either way you slice this carousel, it’s got to be stopped.

Real harm-reduction solutions to society’s problems cannot be produced with violence. Why should we trust that a new jail building with magic medical beds will change the violent, coercive underpinnings of our carceral systems? It won’t. A new jail represents a massive failure of policy and a failure of our community’s empathy.

“I am frankly disgusted that it’s easy for folks to make arguments and vote for giving more money to [design and construction firm] Mead & Hunt to draw up a plan for a larger jail, than to focus, address, and break down the systemic racism that is ingrained in our current system,” Dane County Supervisor April Kigeya said in a County Board meeting back in October. That sums up a lot of the frustration people are feeling about this whole debate.

Previous studies show

The County Board has been going around in circles for many years, not just on the jail, but also on reforming our systems. For a glimpse at that side, let’s look at a 2015 report the Board commissioned on disparities in punishment and mental health. This report asks for a whole lot of data the public still doesn’t have in 2023.

That report asks Dane County to “Create a comprehensive reporting system for public oversight and accountability of the District Attorney’s office’s charging and sentencing recommendation (plea bargaining) policies and practices.” (p10) Has anyone seen movement on this? Bueller?

The report also asked the Dane County Criminal Justice Council (CJC) to add five new voting members, three of them being people who’ve been “directly impacted by the criminal Justice system” and two of them substance abuse or mental health experts. District 27 Supervisor Kierstin Huelsemann finally pushed through some of these changes with the passage of a 2022 resolution. But before passing it, the County Board as a whole watered down the 2015 report’s recommendations, so it only adds two directly impacted people and one expert. But hey, it passed… and now the Criminal Justice Council has been renamed the Community Justice Council, so… problems solved, right?

And finally, in that same 2015 report, many suggestions from the County’s Length of Stay Workgroup about bail and parole are still unfulfilled. The report names “The urgent need for routine collection of intake and process data—disaggregated by race and gender” … and we still don’t have that disaggregated data. Tone Madison‘s coverage from 2021 is the only estimate I’ve seen, where we found that the bias against Black people is 6 to 1.

At the April 27, 2021 meeting of the County’s Public Protection & Judiciary Committee, the group tried to answer questions the County Board asked in a 2020 resolution calling for more data about cash bail. The specific requests in that resolution included “Analysis of individuals assessed cash bail based on race, gender, and age.” But during the April 2021 meeting, any slides breaking down bail were just… not there. During the discussion at that meeting Supervisor Carousel Bayrd asked CJC coordinator Colleen Clark-Bernhardt directly for the breakdowns of bail numbers (1:09 in the meeting) that Clark-Bernhardt had claimed were accidentally missing from the slide presentation. Tone Madison’s multiple emails to Clark-Bernhardt about this missing data have gone unanswered.

Structural issues

Let’s delve into one more reason not to trust the politicians or the planners of this jail, from way back in 2018. The original plan was to expand the Public Safety Building (PSB) on Doty Street, which hosts the administrative core of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office and contains the other main part of the jail. Then the Mead & Hunt and HDR engineers found structural issues in the concrete pilings of the buildings, and suspiciously quickly the Sheriff’s office was pushing the new tower idea to the press. Chief Deputy Jeff Hook told the Wisconsin State Journal at the time, in remarks paraphrased by reporter Shelley K. Mesch, that “adding structural components to support construction above the four-story PSB would be unreasonably expensive.”

What exactly happened? Then-Sheriff Dave Mahoney wrote a letter to the County Board on September 26, 2018. He said that consultants at Mead & Hunt and engineering firm HDR briefed Dane County Public Works Department and Sheriff’s Office folks on September 17, 2018 about the “structural suitability” of the PSB. A detailed report from those consultants followed on September 20, 2018, which enumerates those structural issues and recommends possible strengthening techniques such as underpinning the existing foundation and reinforcing existing concrete beams. Notably, this report contains no dollar amounts whatsoever.

Mahoney’s letter went on to claim that the only sensible option, therefore, was to site a new building adjacent to the PSB. Guess who eventually got millions more to plan that new building? Yes indeed, it’s Mead & Hunt. 

Mead & Hunt’s letter to Public Works Department project manager Scott Carlson on September 20, 2018 recommended hiring a third-party structural engineering company to review their analysis. I contacted Mead & Hunt to ask questions about this recommendation. David Way, the firm’s Business Unit Leader for Building Engineering, told me that “All inquiries about the Dane County Jail project go through Dane County Public Works to process.”

I’m just a simple country journalist, but this feels like the cash vines have grown a little too entwined between the private firms making money from the jail project and the people ostensibly working for us taxpayers. Why do we continue to take recommendations from these companies at face value, when the exact same companies are milking millions to plan the new jail? Mead & Hunt alone has gotten $13.6 million at last count

When I contacted Public Works in January 2023 to ask if there had been a second check or cost estimates, Daniel Lowndes, Dane County’s Risk Manager, told Tone Madison via email: “In the spirit of open government, I will tell you that there was not a second structural engineering check […] so there were no cost estimates.”

There was never—in any of the reports or presentations back in 2018—any estimate of the costs to renovate the PSB. It was just… “unreasonably expensive,” according to… a DCSO official who spoke with the State Journal at the time. So we actually have no idea if that option would have been cheaper than the current $179 million price tag we’ve ended up at. Is this normal? Why didn’t we ever request any third-party confirmation or cost estimates of the PSB plan structural report, with this clear conflict of interest?

It’s hard to prove anything here, but something odd happened in the fall of 2018. After the presentation on September 17 to the Sheriff, initial plans for the tower dropped on October 3, as if it was the only path forward. County government generally does not move fast, as the 7+ year consolidation project should show. A related email thread about the “South Addition Option” on October 2 involving Charles Hicklin (County CFO and controller) and David Gault (assistant corporation counsel at the time) was heavily redacted in an open records request. Why?

A redacted email thread obtained via open records request.

We can’t trust a DCSO whose deputies shot Quantaze D. Campbell to death with no explanation and assaulted Jimmie Joshua with no accountability, to push plans that monopolize such a huge amount of the County budget. Dane County Sheriffs have been pushing so steadily for this tower over the years because it benefits them: a bigger tower means more jobs maintaining the cages. That means a bigger budget and more power.

Bad faith

At this point, we’ve spent $20.7 million on consultants just for planning this project. That’s more than it cost to build the entire Public Safety Building in 1994 ($14.9 million.) Is that inflation, cost disease, or simply bad planning? Tossing these numbers out can make it hard to imagine their scale, so here’s some help: If you spent around $11,000 per day for the next five years, that would be $20 million worth of planning. Better start shopping. If the County Board votes to borrow the $179 million to build the jail tower, that’ll add up to $11,000 a day for 45 years. Which includes none of the interest. That total interest amount owed on this project is missing from the resolution on the agenda for the April 20 meeting, which unsurprisingly gives the public very little information about the current state of the jail consolidation project.

Findorff summary pay request from 1996.

In case you’re wondering, the jail we built in 1994 also had planning problems. It was never determined what caused the PSB’s structural flaws that spun us on this messy trajectory. Was it bad construction by Findorff? Bad planning by the Durrant Group (since defunct?) Could have been both; Public Works and the County Clerk’s Office never managed to find the contract in question when the County Board was trying to figure out what happened in 2019, so we’ll never know.

Around and around the dark carousel we go, as innocent-until-proven-guilty folks have sat in the City-County Building for years. We need to force the County Board to try different avenues to reduce our jail population.

As climate change and an ongoing pandemic make our lives more tenuous—and impact the poorest among us the most—building a giant new jail is simply saying: “Yes, well… any harms that happen, we’d rather not do the hard work of preventing those harms in the first place. Let’s just use cages and hide them behind cement, and pretend we’re progressive.”

Will a big, expensive jail make us safer? No. Will it give more power to our rotten punishment systems? Yes. And will it make some people richer? Oh, yes indeed. Of that one thing we can be certain. So who’s following the damn money?

Get involved

Contact your supervisor, especially if you have never talked to them about the jail. Many of them might just need to hear from a few impassioned constituents. Sign up to give public comment online or in person at the County Board meeting this Thursday, April 20. I’ll see you down there.

Oppose 2022 RES-287, which shifts money from other places it wasn’t needed in the budget and borrows an additional $9 million for a total of $179 million to build a six-story jail tower. 

Support 2022 RES-393, which revokes the federal transfer contract with the jail, reducing the total number of beds needed. We’ve actually been getting paid less than the cost to cage these people, so this is an obvious win.

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