Lisa Mitchell has been booked into the Dane County Jail 26 times since 2000. In total, she’s spent more than four years behind bars in the county’s custody. Often, she was confined 23 hours a day to a segregation cell in the 60-year-old jail.
“It’s a little box. There’s mold growing around you. There’s no fresh air, and the ventilation is bad. The water is nasty, and it stinks,” says Mitchell. “It’s beyond cruel. The whole place is an imminent danger to people’s health. It needs to be shut down. Not in a few years, not in a few months. Now.”
Mitchell isn’t waiting for lawmakers to take action. She filed a federal lawsuit last May alleging Dane County is violating the constitutional rights of inmates by continuing to house them in the jail on the sixth and seventh floors of the City County Building. The environmental conditions at the jail, which opened in 1957, amount to “cruel and unusual punishment,” Mitchell alleges. The case is moving forward in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
“People are suffering while [officials] are stuck on political agendas. I’m sitting there month after month, breathing in black mold. The asbestos is going through this old ventilation system. I’m drinking lead in the water. And it’s not like people don’t know about it,” says Mitchell. “I get that people are in the jail because they broke the law. But they are handing out death sentences. What are they waiting for?”
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, who runs the jail, is named as one of the defendants in Mitchell’s lawsuit. Since it’s ongoing, he and attorneys for the county declined to comment on details of the case. But the sheriff acknowledges that there is asbestos, lead and other safety hazards at the City County Building jail. He calls the facility “inhumane” and “dangerous.”
“It needed to be replaced yesterday. We as a community have just kicked this issue down the road hoping it would just go away, and it hasn’t,” Mahoney says. “Now is the time to quit talking about it. Quit studying it. And come up with a plan to replace the City County Building jail. We need to make it happen before someone is critically injured or loses their life.”
Mahoney is urging the Dane County Board to allocate millions in the 2018 budget to pay for plans that would finally shut down the facility. If approved, it would still take years for all inmates in Dane County to be housed across the street in the comparatively modern jail at the Public Safety Building. County board leaders favor a proposal — expected to be the most expensive in county history at more than $150 million — that would greatly expand the Public Safety Building jail. But Dane County Executive Joe Parisi is balking at the price tag. So supervisors are scrambling for an alternative the county executive can support in time for the 2018 budget. But will the can be kicked once again?
Not if Lisa Mitchell has anything to do with it. And she’s not the only inmate determined to shut the jail down.
Lisa Mitchell says inmates at Dane County’s old jail are being exposed to dangerous levels of lead and asbestos.
Mitchell is outside of Starbucks a block away from the Dane County Jail. Her mother, Emma, who is an amputee and uses a wheelchair, is nearby with a white Styrofoam cup in front of her. Just a few coins sit at the bottom of the beat-up container. Emma doesn’t say a word or even look up at passersby. Mitchell keeps an eye on her mother from a stoop 10 feet away. She’s hunched over and tears are welling up in her eyes. She looks exhausted.
“We don’t usually do this. But my mom is hungry and we are poor right now,” says Mitchell, who lives with and cares for her mother these days. “There’s a difference between a need and a want.”
Mitchell, 36, has known hard times before. Growing up poor, black and transgender in Madison didn’t leave her many opportunities. She was exposed to crime and drug use at a young age. Her mother struggled with addiction to crack cocaine, and her father passed away when she was a teenager. Mitchell was born biologically male but has always identified as a woman. She says her gender expression and lengthy rap sheet have made it “pretty much impossible” to find employment.
Mitchell has been convicted of a number of misdemeanors and felonies, including theft of movable property, retail theft with threat of force and child enticement. Mitchell says the enticement charge came after she was coerced into prostitution by a pimp and that she had no idea the john was a minor.
“I hope I am forgiven for all my sins one day, and I’ve made a lot of big mistakes. I deserved to be punished for my crimes,” says Mitchell. “But being true to myself has put a lot of barriers in my way. I’m not saying it’s right. But I did what I had to do to survive.”
Her dozens of stints in the Dane County Jail — sometimes for months at a time — stem from violating conditions of her release and awaiting court proceedings. The current policy at the jail is to assign housing based on how inmates identify their gender. Although Mitchell is transgender, she says she was always housed with men, who often threatened her.
For her safety, Mitchell was often confined to a special needs segregation cell, akin to solitary confinement. Inmates suffering from mental illness, in wheelchairs or with other medical needs are often housed there as well. The Dane County Jail System currently has no medical beds.
While locked up, she found solace in books and thought of her cell as a classroom. Mitchell had enjoyed her classes at La Follette High School, but never graduated. “All there is to do — especially in the county jail — is to read books,” says Mitchell. “So that’s what I did. Read, read, read.”
After feeling forced to take a plea deal in 2009, Mitchell lost faith that the criminal justice system was inherently fair. She started reading law books, immersing herself in federal regulations, Wisconsin state statutes and the U.S. Constitution.
“Eventually, I realized the only one who was going to help me was me,” says Mitchell. “I got myself wrapped up in the system, and once you’re trapped, it’s hard to escape. But I knew if I had any hope of turning my life around, I had to educate myself.”
The more she read, the more convinced she became that the environmental conditions at the City County Building jail weren’t just inhumane, they were unconstitutional.
Dane County has no infirmary in its jail. Inmates with medical or other needs are housed in segregation cells 23 hours a day.
It’s been more than a decade since calls began for replacing the jail.
“We’ve been talking about the replacement of the City County Building since 2003,” says Mahoney, who was first elected sheriff in 2006. “We have spent about $1.7 million in taxpayer dollars just on studies. All we have to show for it are three-ring binders full of paper. We haven’t actually done anything.”
The studies keep coming. One released in December found that due to the age of the building, asbestos and lead paint “may be present in the metal ceiling panel, floor tile, paint and pipe insulation within the east side of the jail.” The $479,000 report also says that recent water studies have shown “high rates of lead in the domestic water system.”
“We know the water has measured amounts of lead in it,” says Mahoney. “Our staff take measures to prevent having to drink the water. However, those that are incarcerated don’t have that option.”
Every year, state inspectors criticize the county for housing inmates in poor conditions and not complying with safety standards. Since the county has been working, albeit slowly, on bringing the facility up to standards, Mahoney says the City County jail has been allowed to continue operating, but the federal and state governments are watching closely.
Lt. Kurt Pierce, one of the jail’s administrators, says the antiquated design of the City County Building jail makes life difficult for both inmates and staff. “They stopped building linear jails like this in the 1970s. When this facility was built, they just concentrated on physical barriers separating inmates and the staff,” he says. “The whole philosophy has changed.”
Pierce often gives tours of the jail. “I joke sometimes that if the county wanted to make money, they should build a new jail and rent out the [City County Building jail] to Hollywood. It looks like Alcatraz or something out of Shawshank Redemption. It’s just not a modern facility.”
In October, the board approved “life-saving improvements” to the jail. While officials weigh permanent remedies, $4.4 million will be spent on repairs. The mitigation plan addresses one immediate concern for Mahoney: lock malfunctions that trap inmates in their cells.
“We continue to have locks fail, and individuals are locked in cells or cell blocks for hours at a time. That’s just totally unacceptable,” says Mahoney. “If we have a medical emergency, somebody tries to take their own life or there’s a natural disaster, we have to get those individuals immediately. If we can’t, somebody might die.”
New fire alarm and smoke control systems will be installed and the video surveillance improved. An estimated $280,000 will be spent cleaning HVAC ducts and louvers. Another $120,000 is allocated to test for and mitigate “lead and other contaminants.”
In April, water filters were installed at the City County Building jail to address elevated lead levels. The rest of the repairs, scheduled to begin this summer, might cost millions, but Mahoney says the improvements are only temporary.
“The short-term fixes will give us one or two years, maybe three,” he says. “If we were ready to replace the jail today — which we aren’t — it would [take] a minimum of two years. So we have to plan for two years as we move ahead on a replacement.”
Mahoney believes replacing the 60-year-old jail is the only option. And the 700-page consultant study released in December backs him up, recommending against renovation.
“The age of the building, outdated technology, and poor physical conditions of the building, result in numerous risks and hazards to the staff, inmates, and volunteers,” states the report. “We believe Dane County should not consider extending the life of the jail, but should work towards getting out of the building with due haste.”
Mitchell isn’t the only former inmate fighting for a safer jail. Herbert Wilkins, 54, has cumulatively spent over a year inside the City County Building jail since 2013. While incarcerated there in 2016, he recalls staff commenting on the water the inmates are forced to drink.
“I heard one of the [security staff] say, ‘I wouldn’t let my dog drink that water.’ I remember because I filed a grievance about it,” says Wilkins. “A lot of [inmates] don’t complain because you’d be written up.”
Wilkins’ lawsuit alleges that black inmates are being disportionately assigned to the oldest of Dane County’s three jail facilities, violating their civil rights. “Most of the staff still doesn’t look like me,” says Wilkins, who is black.
Wilkins acknowledges that diversity among jail staff has improved in recent years, but says it’s still discriminatory. “You can’t change a system overnight. The [white] staff are still coming from places where there aren’t a lot of black people,” says Wilkins. “It’s a culture issue.”
Like Mitchell, Wilkins is asking a federal court to shutter the jail and award damages for being exposed to hazardous conditions under the county’s care. He claims the water in the jail gave him chronic headaches. But he’s more concerned about asbestos contamination.
“I did asbestos abatement in Minnesota. I was certified to remove it so I know what I’m talking about. You can see fiber coming out of the concrete at the jail. That’s asbestos,” says Wilkins. “The ventilation system is recirculating all those fibers to every part of the jail.”
After being released from the jail in September 2016, Mitchell went to the hospital because of persistent respiratory issues. She was diagnosed with pneumonia, which she believes was exacerbated by the air quality in the jail.
“The air is making people sick. It only takes one asbestos fiber to cause serious damage,” says Mitchell. “It keeps me up at night. Every time I cough I think about one tiny asbestos fiber on my lung. My doctor says it can just sit there for years incubating.”
Terrence Buchanan, 29, spent the last nine months in the City County Building jail on a drug charge. He suffers from asthma triggered by dust and other allergens. He is also suing the county in federal court over the conditions at the jail.
“I felt it the second I walked in this place. All of a sudden I need to use my inhaler a lot more than I was while on the street,” Buchanan says during an interview at the jail before being transferred to the Dodge Correctional Institution in late March. “I filed grievances, and the staff told me there was nothing they could do about it.”
The showers at the jail are a frequent source of complaints from inmates, according to Mitchell, Wilkins and Buchanan.
“There is paint or something that bubbles up and is flaking away. Behind that and the fixtures is this shiny black mold,” says Buchanan. “They give us spray to clean some of it up because it stinks so bad in there. It doesn’t do any good.”
And there are “sewer bugs.” That’s what the inmates call drain flies that come up through the showers and into cells.
“They bite you while you sleep. Buzz in your ear. They get in your food,” says Mitchell. “These bugs come up through the sinks, toilets. These bugs go straight from touching shit to landing on your meal.”
Lt. Kurt Pierce often jokes to visitors at the jail that the county could make a lot of money renting the facility out for Hollywood movies. “It looks like Alcatraz.”
In December, the consultant firm Mead & Hunt proposed two options to consolidate the county’s jail operations at the Public Safety Building (which opened in 1994 and is located across the street from the City County Building). Both plans would close the City County Building jail and the Ferris Center on Rimrock Road. The first option, estimated at $152.1 million, creates more beds and programming space by adding four new floors onto the Public Safety Building and expanding into the sheriff’s parking lot. The second, estimated to cost $164.5 million, would build an addition that would require purchasing two adjacent properties on West Wilson Street.
In January, Parisi called for more options due to the high cost. So on March 23, the board asked Mead & Hunt to come up with an alternative that breaks the project into more phases — spreading out the cost. Consultant fees for this new plan alone cost $82,200. It is scheduled to be presented to the county’s Public Protection & Judiciary Committee on June 13.
Sharon Corrigan, chair of the Dane County Board, is optimistic that a plan will be ready for the 2018 budget. But she says there’s no getting around the unprecedented expense of a new facility and admits there’s “always a risk” the project would be delayed again.
“We have to be careful about the liability and the responsibility we have for taking care of our inmates,” says Corrigan.
Parisi is still looking for a “barebones option” to replace just the 341 beds at the City County Building jail — more than a third of the jail system’s capacity.
“There are some limitations on the amount of money the county can spend. What I’ve seen, so far, has been too expensive,” says Parisi. “Even when people talk about phasing [the project] in, that still adds up to the same — or actually more — than the original $164 million. I’m not prepared to go along with that at this time.”
Parisi says he’ll wait to see the new option before deciding. When asked to respond to inmate claims of “inhumane conditions” at the City County Building jail, Parisi says the county has a responsibility to look at every option before moving forward.
“We can’t look at this jail project in a vacuum,” says Parisi. “Those capital dollars would be competing with what I believe are the true priorities of this community: Cleaning up our lakes. Providing affordable housing. Conservation of our natural resources. Road construction and rehabilitation.”
Although Parisi agrees the old jail will eventually need to close, he declines to give a dollar amount he would support: “I don’t think it’s responsible to get behind a number until you know what you are getting.”
The lawsuits Mitchell, Wilkins and Buchanan filed in 2016 are slowly making their way through the federal court process. Each has asked for a jury trial. A resolution is unlikely in 2017 unless the county settles. But even so, the lawsuits are in motion. That’s more than can be said of the county officials, who have yet to close the book on the City County Building jail.
The legal hurdles are high for a federal court to order the closure of a correctional facility. One precedent the inmates must overcome was set in 2001 by a U.S. Appeals Court in Carroll v. DeTella. Longtime Illinois inmate Ronnie W. Carroll filed the lawsuit over hazardous environmental conditions at two state prisons. Carroll sought damages for radium contamination in the drinking water at the Stateville Correctional Center and lead contamination at the Menard Correctional Center. The Appeals Court affirmed a lower court decision to dismiss the lawsuit.
“Many Americans live under conditions of exposure to various contaminants. The Eighth Amendment does not require prisons to provide prisoners with more salubrious air, healthier food, or cleaner water than are enjoyed by substantial numbers of free Americans,” states the decision. “If the prison authorities are violating federal anti-pollution laws, the plaintiff may have a remedy under those laws.”
What most frustrates Mitchell is that county officials are “well aware” of the health hazards and “have been for years.” While lawmakers study and debate plans on when to close the jail, Mitchell says the inmates housed in the top floors of the building are being treated like “caged animals.”
“Inmates shouldn’t have to be filing lawsuits to solve this,” Mitchell says. “While politicians bicker about budgets, people are suffering. We are being ignored, and they just go about their day like there is no problem at all. This isn’t justice. It’s cruelty.”