DANE COUNTY, Wis. — Four months after they rejected a $150 million proposal to construct a new jail, Dane County, Wis., board members are now leaning toward a gradual overhaul of the county’s existing correctional infrastructure. The sweeping renovation would address a number of current deficiencies, including the lack of proper facilities for mentally ill inmates and programming space, as well as safety issues.
Dane County currently operates three separate jails. However, the condition of the jail located within the City County Building in downtown Madison is particularly concerning. The facility was initially built in 1956 and underwent a vertical expansion in 1985, bringing it to its current seven stories. Today, the jail walls and locks are beginning to rust and deteriorate, and solitary confinement cells are often used to hold inmates with special needs due to lack of appropriate holding space. Additionally, the antiquated design poses safety issues, and the jail’s locking system is a constant concern for facility staff.
"[The locks] don’t operate properly, and if we lose power or a cell loses power, we have to manually, with a pry bar, extract the inmates out," Dane County Sgt. Chris Reynolds told NBC News 15 in December 2014.
Mead & Hunt of Middleton, Wis., the same consulting firm that recommended the multimillion-dollar jail consolidation and construction proposal, will also be tasked with developing a new plan for gradual improvement and expansion of the existing facilities. The firm’s earlier recommendations to bring all jail operations under one roof was intended to trim operation costs and allow the county to institute more programs and services for inmates. However, the plan exceeded earlier estimates by roughly $50 million and did not include costs related to purchasing land or hiring a design firm.
The Dane County Board will establish three different committees to study correctional issues ranging from the treatment and management of mentally ill inmates to possible alternatives to incarceration. Additionally, the groups will examine successful mental health programs enacted by various communities throughout the country for potential adoption in Dane County.
"These alternatives can reach the same goals shared by our traditional sentencing including restorative justice practices, rehabilitation and punishment," Supervisor Shelia Stubbs told WKOW News on Feb. 19. "Our overall goal should be to deter or divert people from the criminal justice system."
These working groups will also collaborate with Mead & Hunt on the new renovation recommendations and will likely present those recommendations to the board by September.
Alongside making physical improvements to its correctional infrastructure, Dane County is also working to address racial disparities in its incarceration figures.
In 2012, African American adults were arrested in Dane County at a rate more than eight times that of whites, according to “Race to Equity,” a report published by the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families in 2013. That compares to a black-white arrest disparity of roughly 4 to 1 for the rest of the state, and 2.5 to 1 for the country. Meanwhile, black men made up only 4.8 percent of Dane County’s total adult male population, but accounted for more than 43 percent of all new adult prison placements during the year.