In spite of Dane County’s rapidly growing population, one that topped 500,000 people in 2015, the County Board will consider approving a smaller jail tonight. Through work of many diversion programs, the Dane County jail has been able to reduce the population in jail significantly. With a vote to approve building a smaller jail, the County is making the promise to continue to invest in diversion programs, as well as expanding mental health and housing support.
In preparation for voting on Resolution 035 to authorize the jail consolidation project and bonding for the financing of the project, I have been reading reports, articles, asking for data, and seeking input from local leaders and organizers.
The decision to spend money on a jail is not an easy one. Having spent several hours in the jail on different occasions, and learning of multiple suicide attempts in my short time on the board, I cannot accept the conditions of the current facility, and therefore will vote in favor of Resolution 035. At the same time, I am committed to the work needed to continue to decrease the number of people in the jail and take action to reduce the disproportionate number of people of color in the Dane County jail.
I was driven to run for the County Board by my experience of working at the community level, seeing the tremendous impact that culturally-relevant, community-based, trauma-informed care and support have. In my work with medical professionals, and mental health experts in our community, this approach has only been reinforced with time. The county is limited by jurisdiction on how it can be involved in schools and other solutions that I have heard mentioned in public discourse. I am interested in exploring creative solutions through community centers that can address the achievement gap, opportunities for mental health support, job training, housing stability. In addition to programs like Neighborhood Intervention Program, and Building Bridges partnerships, we can have a direct impact, earlier in the stream, and help people before they reach crisis addressing root disparity. Funding for the jail will not impact any current services provided by the county, therefore the commitment to the community will not be disrupted.
In a recent Cap Times letter to the editor, Sheriff Mahony described the Dane County jail system, “composed of three jails: the City-County Building, the Public Safety Building and the Ferris Center work release center. The City-County Building jail, which first opened in 1954, was developed with a philosophy of warehousing inmates with no concern for adequate medical or mental health space, programming space, education space or recreation space.”
This is not the first time a project to renovate the jail has been considered. “In 1999, Sheriff Gary Hamblin requested $26 million to add on to the Public Safety Building.” In 2017, the Dane County Board voted to approve $76 Million in borrowing to add on to the Public Safety Building. Earlier this year, we learned that this would not be an option, due to structural problems with the Public Safety Building.
More work to do
As you can see in the timeline above, Dane County has increased efforts over the last ten years to decrease the jail population. This has come in the form of diversion programs, housing support, and mental health support. There is more to do.
In a letter on May 2, 2019, MOSES stated values of respect, reductions in the jail population and elimination of racial disparities—continuing over time. Additionally, they asked that a facility would include, a variety of programming spaces to maximize access to opportunities for classes and religious/spiritual services of many kinds, centralized spaces for larger specialized meetings or services are also provided, face-to-face visitation space, housing units specially designed for health services and mental health services, state-of-the-art health care (infirmary) and mental health care/treatment facilities, spaces that promote staff interaction with residents in a way that minimizes behavior that leads to imposition of isolated housing assignment, access to interior and outside (fresh air) spaces for exercise and recreation is provided.
If the resolution passes, a facility that addresses these values can be constructed. We will then continue to work with the community to reduce the number of people in jail by addressing bias, and offering support to structural barriers.