One of the most complex and expensive public projects in Dane County history just got more complicated. After years of study and debate, a long term plan for the Dane County Jail appears to be in sight. But Dane County Executive Joe Parisi isn't sold on the two options currently being considered to modernize the jail.
“How can we find the best, most cost-effective solution if we don’t have a number of options before us?” says Parisi. “A project of this magnitude requires thoughtful, careful deliberation and it's important not to rush into a decision.”
Parisi’s call for more options could derail the county board’s plan to make a final recommendation on the jail’s future in time for the 2018 budget. In a Jan. 5 opinion column, board chair Sharon Corrigan said there is “no dispute” over whether the jail facility at the City County Building is “unsafe,” “inhumane” and needs to be closed. She said the board expects to make a decision this summer by acting on one of two proposals that would consolidate jail operations at the Public Safety Building. But Parisi balks at the price tag for these options, which are estimated to cost between $152 million and $165 million.
“What we have before us are two very expensive proposals,” says Parisi. “Each of these projects is well over $150 million. This project would impact a lot of people in our community…. I think we have to ask is this the best way to address criminal justice issues.”
Parisi has already quietly tried to widen the number of proposals for a new jail. In the fall, he allocated $109,500 in his 2017 capital budget for a study on building a new facility to replace the jail at the City County Building. Just as quietly, county supervisors removed the funding from the final version of the budget.
“We felt like it was something that deserved more attention. During the budget process there are already a lot of moving pieces,” says Supv. Jenni Dye, who sits on the personnel and finance committee. “If we were to consider [a new study on the jail], we wanted to do it at a point where there could be public input on that issue alone.”
Supv. Carousel Bayrd, a member of the committee that oversees the jail, says Parisi’s action is a betrayal of the county’s pledge to only consider plans that would keep the jail downtown by remodeling existing county facilities.
“It was an incredibly sneaky move. It was hidden in the budget resolution and nobody knew about it until well into the process” says Bayrd. “Was [Parisi] allowed to do that? Sure. Was it tricky and manipulative? Heck yes.”
In May 2015 the county board approved a jail reform resolution opposing construction of a new stand-alone jail. It was passed unanimously and signed by Parisi. The resolution quelled months of demonstrations and protests over building a new jail led by social justice groups MOSES Madison and Young Gifted and Black. Instead of calling for a jail facility at a new site, the resolution authorized a $479,000 study that would ultimately lay out options for remodeling and expanding the jail at the Public Safety Building (which opened in 1994). The consultant company Mead & Hunt took more than a year to complete the wide ranging study, releasing a 700-page report in December 2016.
The report recommends closing the jail at the City County Building and the Ferris Center on Rimrock Road and bringing all county inmates under one roof. The number of beds for inmates would decrease by 69 under these plans, fulfilling a pledge also stated in the 2015 jail reform package. More housing units and programming space would be created by adding four new floors onto the Public Safety Building and expanding out into the sheriff’s parking lot. The other option calls for an addition to the building that would require purchasing two adjacent properties on West Wilson Street.
But Parisi is not happy with these recommendations. He says the resolution passed in 2015 doesn’t preclude the county from exploring additional options. Back in 2014 he rejected the idea of a new jail, citing the hefty price tag. A preliminary estimate put the cost at $150 million for building a jail at a new site within 10 miles of downtown.
The study Parisi wanted (but didn’t get) would have looked at constructing a smaller facility that would only replace the 341 beds at the jail located in the top two floors of the City County Building. The plan assumes more than half of county inmates would remain at the Public Safety Building.
“I would like to see an option that includes a smaller project,” says Parisi. “Without being wed to any one idea, I think it would benefit the community to have a greater array of options to explore.”
County board officials are “strongly leaning” towards keeping the jail in downtown Madison. Advantages include proximity to the Dane County Courthouse and bus line accessibility. Arrests from the Madison Police Department also account for the majority of inmates in the county.
“It seems like a complete waste of taxpayer money for the Madison Police Department to be driving somewhere that is not centrally located every time they need to bring someone to or from the jail,” says Bayrd. “There are multiple reasons why the jail should stay where it is.”
For years, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney has been sounding the alarm on the conditions at the jail located in the City County Building. First built in 1954, the jail houses maximum security inmates and contains 24 solitary confinement cells. There have been several incidents of inmates being trapped in cells due to malfunctioning doors at the 60-year-old facility.
“Just a month ago, we had another incident where individuals were locked in for over three hours where we couldn’t get them out of their cells. That’s completely unacceptable,” says Mahoney. “In the face of an emergency, a medical condition or if someone attempted to hurt themselves, having to wait three hours to get into cells would result in one or more deaths.”
A short-term solution to these problems is already in the works. In October, the county board approved $4.4 million for “life-saving improvements.” Mahoney says the safety measures will be implemented within the next six months, but stresses that the mitigation plan is not a long-term fix.
“It will only last us — at best — two or three years,” says Mahoney. “That’s why we are continuing to move forward with replacing the two floors [at the City County Building where the jail is located]. If we can begin construction in 2018, we can occupy the new facility in three years which will be in line with the estimates of the mitigations.”
Mahoney says the county has “gone far too long” risking the lives of inmates and the employees who work in the jail.
“Time is of the essence,” he says. “Let’s not wait until a catastrophic incident occurs or we may be forced to do something we didn’t want to do in the first place.”