Linda Ketcham is afraid that if we build it, the prisoners will come.
The executive director of the Madison-Area Urban Ministry fears that a new Dane County jail -- expected to cost as much as $120 million -- would inevitably lead the county to lock up more people.
"When we build them, we tend to fill them," says Ketcham. "My concern would be we build this new jail and we just continue to fill the old space."
Although nothing has been proposed yet, Ketcham's concerns underscore the fault lines that are likely to emerge as the county contemplates whether to renovate its current jails or build a new one. Underscoring the debate is the fact that Wisconsin and Dane County lock up a disproportionately high number of minorities.
Sheriff David Mahoney counters that doing nothing is the real cruelty. He says he is sometimes forced to house mentally ill inmates in "disciplinary units."
"Someone who enters the jail in a manic state who may be suicidal -- they sleep on concrete slabs with a steel toilet," he says. "We've always housed those individuals in disciplinary housing units -- units that are meant to change behavior, not treat mental illness."
Mahoney adds: "Do we want to continue housing chronically mentally ill people on concrete slabs? Is that acceptable to people?"
The debate is likely to intensify when a consultant delivers recommendations to the county in December.
Dane County has three jail facilities. There's a high-security unit on the sixth and seventh floors of the City County Building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with 341 beds. The Public Safety Building, on West Doty Street, has minimum- and medium-security units and a processing area with a combined 464 beds. And the Ferris Huber Center on Rimrock Road has 144 beds for inmates who leave during the day for work.
Talk about a jail expansion is not new. In 2003, Dane County was coping with severe jail overcrowding. Even though the county had built the Public Safety Building less than a decade earlier, it still couldn't house all its inmates. Each day, the county had as many as 69 inmates in neighboring county jails, costing more than $350,000 in 2002.
Some on the county board called for an addition to the Public Safety Building, but the county instead brought in a consultant from the Institute for Law and Policy Planning for advice. In its final report (PDF), the institute recommended several ways to reduce the jail population. The county began putting more nonviolent offenders on ankle bracelet monitoring, and it found ways to make the justice system more efficient, reducing the time inmates spend waiting to go before a judge.
As a result, the jail is no longer crowded. Sheriff Mahoney says that jail capacity is about 800 to 840 people. Capacity is less than the total 949 beds, because the jail needs to be able to move people around, he says.
On Tuesday the county had 943 people in custody, but only 789 housed in its facilities, with 154 monitored with bracelets. The jail population is expected to continue declining.
County executive Joe Parisi says the county isn't contemplating a new jail because it needs more beds. "This is about consolidating," he says. "It's not about increasing the capacity."
Adds the sheriff: "Any proposal will have no additional bed space."
Instead, they say a new or renovated facility is needed to deal with inmates with increasingly complex problems, including mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, and other medical conditions. Mahoney says he doesn't have any space in the jail to do special programming for the inmates.
"Programming is necessary to address recidivism," the sheriff says. "We don't have programming space in the jail. So a lot of programs that are needed aren't possible to run because we don't have the room for them."
Mahoney says he would be happy spending the money on a treatment facility, though he suspects that would cost more.
"I would welcome the chance to take all of our mentally ill and medically challenged inmates...and put them somewhere they could get programming," he says. "But I haven't heard anyone stepping up to do that. Since the '70s, it's been just the opposite."
Parisi says the county already spends a lot on mental health services. In 2013, the county spent $29.6 million. But Parisi adds: "If they do end up in the criminal justice system we want to be able to provide them the best treatment to help them get better."
David Delap, who manages Journey Mental Health's community treatment alternatives program, agrees that the jail cells, especially in the City County Building, are terribly outdated.
Delap's program provides a treatment alternative for mentally ill people who run afoul of the law -- an area where Dane County has traditionally been a leader. Still, Delap is alarmed by the potential price tag for a new jail.
"It does give me pause. $120 million is a lot of money," he says. "A 10th of that spent on diversion programs could divert a lot of people."
Delap says there are four programs in Dane County, including his own, that provide a treatment alternative to locking up the mentally ill. But the funding for these programs has not kept pace with population growth or inflation, he says. In 1998, there were slots to treat 483 people suffering from mental illness who otherwise would be locked up. In 2010, there were 525 treatment slots -- a growth of about 8%. But since then, the county's population has jumped 27% to 495,000.
"Assuming 483 was an appropriate number in 1998, we should have 610 treatment slots now, which puts us about 88 slots short," Delap says. He notes that Milwaukee County, with double Dane County's population, has three times as many treatment slots.
"In other counties, they've actually cut back on services," he says. "So at least Dane County has maintained. The problem is we've not grown commensurate with out population growth."
Delap adds: "If we had more funding, I know we could reduce the number of mentally ill in jail."
County officials stress that nothing has been proposed yet. The study due in December from the firm Mead & Hunt will detail options. In his capital budget for 2014 (PDF), Parisi included $8 million for planning and land acquisition for a jail.
"We're not in the literal planning stage," he cautions. "We're in the information-gathering stage. The dollars I have in the budget are there as a placeholder in case it makes sense to begin planning."
But if Dane County does build a new facility, what will happen to the old ones?
The county wants to close the Ferris Huber Center. Mahoney says the top floors of the City County Building could be renovated into office space. Then there's the matter of the Public Safety Building. It also houses the medical examiner, emergency management and the sheriff's administrative offices. But the county is working on moving both emergency management and the medical examiner out of that building. If the jail also moves, what would the county do with the Public Safety Building?
Josh Wescott, Parisi's chief of staff, says it's too soon to know, but doesn't rule out selling the building for private development.
"This is one of an endless number of hypotheticals," Wescott says. "There will be a menu of options for people to choose from."
[Editor's note: Dave Delap at Journey Mental Health Center clarifies that while Dane County has four community support programs for mentally ill people only one, Community Treatment Alternatives, is dedicated solely to providing services to people who are either diverted from the Dane County Jail or have been conditionally released after being found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.]