Mahnker Dahnweih & crowd

Mahnker Dahnweih of Freedom, Inc. leads jail opponents in chants after they interrupted the Dane County Board of Supervisors meeting. When the meeting resumed, the Board voted overwhelmingly to fund construction of the new jail.

Amid vocal opposition from protesting community members, the Dane County Board of Supervisors overwhelmingly voted just after midnight Friday to approve an additional $74 million in funding to expand jail facilities in downtown Madison, adding to $76 million approved in 2017.

The eight-story project, dubbed the South Tower, will be constructed next to the Public Safety Building and replace existing facilities that have been deemed unsafe for inmates and personnel. 

“Just to remind folks that we’ve spent many years on this topic and countless hours and many meetings to bring us to where we’re at tonight,” said District 22 Supervisor Maureen McCarville five hours into the meeting, noting that the Board approved $76 million in funding in 2017. “Tonight… we need to increase that amount in order to go forward due to construction and engineering issues that arose.”

Hoping to persuade supervisors to vote against funding the project, at least 20 people stepped to the podium in opposition, which is estimated to cost around $220 million with interest. Another 61 registered their opposition. 

“There is a different way to envision what safety looks like in this community,” said  Kazbuag Vaj, co- executive director of Freedom, Inc., adding that some constituents might have emailed their supervisors in support of the jail, but that it was important for her to testify in person. “We’re not here because we’re activists. We’re here because it actually impacts our families. When I go home, my household is impacted on your vote. It’s almost midnight, I have kids but I’m here because I think it’s important that you all hear that.”

“This is not just about a jail, obviously,” said Erica Lopez, who described herself as a poverty lawyer. “You as a body, need to understand that this community is angry because you’re choosing — this is your priority. These dollar amounts speak to the fact that you care to uphold a racist institution rather than what our community needs, which are services.”

Several people criticized the Board for supporting the jail after having opened the meeting with resolutions condemning conversion therapy to change sexual orientation and officially recognizing Juneteenth, the holiday which marks the day the last slave was freed. 

“This is just so typical Madison,” said Allison Bell Bern. “We know all the right things to say. We’re so liberal, we’re so progressive, and then when it comes down to the things that are really impacting people’s lives, we do this.”

Three people spoke in support during the public comment period, and another 15 — including the Board’s three supervisors-elect — registered their support.

Linda Hoskins, a former president of Madison NAACP, argued the plan would improve conditions in the jail.

“I’ve never been to jail and I’ve never been arrested, but I’ve been in Dane County Jail ever since 1993 helping people,” Hoskins said, “and I challenge everybody in here that says we don’t need a jail to go to jail, stay for the weekend, and then come out and say what you think that we should have.”

Also voicing support was Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.

“I’m here to speak in support of the jail not because I believe jail does anyone any good,” said Ozanne. “But at this time ... we need to commit to a humane facility. A facility that once we affect somebody’s liberty, we can treat them with the care and dignity they deserve.”

Jail opponents twice shouted Ozanne down, demanding that his office pursue action against police responsible for the controversial arrest of a West High School student this week and in the police shooting of Tony Robinson. Through the shouts, Ozanne asked that supervisors and the public watch a video clip he shared promoting “community justice centers.”

Ozanne said he and other district attorneys across the country are seeking ways to “hopefully take the prisons we have now and change them if we cannot get rid of them.” But, he said, “right now, I can tell you, we do not have the ability to get rid of every prison and every jail.”

Despite the public showing of opposition, 26 supervisors voted for the resolution. Four supervisors — Yogesh Chawla (District 6), Heidi Wegleitner (District 2), Richard Kilmer (District 4) and Jason Knoll (District 32) voted against , and three were absent for the vote.

“I realize that the jail has the votes to pass," said Chawla. “We need a better process than this one where the business of government seems sometimes finished when it’s handed to the county board and where our community dialogue is shouted across the room instead of settled at the same table.” 

There would be other important decisions to come, he said.

“Tonight we’ll be voting on constructing bricks and buildings, but over the next five years we will determine how those facilities will be used. Policy is not crafted with cement and mortar. It is fluid and flexible and adapts to the changing times,” Chawla said. “I hope you pursue these decarceration alternatives with the same vigor and velocity that we are pursuing the South Tower jail project.” 

Wegleitner criticized the idea of spending tens of millions of dollars to staff the new jail given evidence that jails make individuals more likely to commit crimes in the future.

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“Do you think we’d spend $35 million on any other program that we knew was going to fail? That’s absurd.” She said the plan could not receive sufficient public input when the vote came only two weeks after it was approved in committee.

The new facility will be built behind and connected to the existing Public Safety Building, one of three sites where Dane County inmates are currently housed. The Board opted to proceed with this plan after discovering in 2018 that the Public Safety Building could not support the weight of additional floors and learning in April of this year that the three proposed alternative structures would be more expensive. Funding the tower will raise taxes for the average Madison household by approximately $50.

The plan reduces the total number of jail beds in the county from 1,013 to 922, in line with the county’s declining jail population. In a Wednesday press release, Board Chair Sharon Corrigan (District 26) said that the current jail population is around 750, down more than 40% from 2007. But some say the jail should be smaller still.

“It’s still higher than we need each day,” shouted Dahnweih.

Earlier in the evening, eight members of the public spoke in opposition to a second jail plan: a proposal to pay $264,000 to Milwaukee firm Venture Architects to design an addition to the county’s current juvenile detention center in the City-County Building.

Alternative proposals

Supervisor Patrick Downing (District 30) presented a resolution proposing an alternative source of funds for the project. Because the Board originally commissioned construction of the Public Safety Building in the 1990s with the understanding that it could support two additional floors, “the engineer or their insurer should bear some responsibility for that,” Downing said. 

Wegleitner, Chawla and Kilmer introduced a resolution for an alternative to the jail, suggesting the county instead “develop a decarceration plan” and allocate $10 million to “address the imminent health and safety needs” of the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building. 

The decarceration plan would evaluate and make recommendations on proposals including developing 350 permanent supportive housing units for people who have been homeless and incarcerated and creating one or more “community-based crisis, assessment, and resource centers” to divert people with mental health, substance abuse or developmental disability issues from the jail. The plan also calls for expanding the county’s Criminal Justice Council to include three members to the who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system and two experts in behavioral health.

“There are deplorable conditions in this building on the sixth and seventh floors. The plan before us tonight does not change that until February of 2024,” Wegleitner said, referring to the tower’s projected completion date. “So if you think by voting for this tonight, you’re helping people up there right now who are suffering, you’re not.”

Correction: This article originally noted that Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner criticized the idea of spending tens of thousands of dollars to staff the new jail. It has been corrected.