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Dane County Board calls for future jail capacity reduction

Dane County Board calls for future jail capacity reduction

Public Safety Building (copy)

The Dane County Jail is spread across three facilities that include the Public Safety Building, shown here, the downtown City-County Building and the Ferris Center on the city's South Side.

The Dane County Board of Supervisors recommended Thursday that the Sheriff’s Office close a housing unit in the jail once a $148 million project is complete. 

Closing the 50-person pod in the downtown Public Safety Building (PSB), one of three facilities that make up the jail, would reduce the number of beds available to 872. Supervisors adopted the resolution on a 30-7 vote over a substitute proposal that would have eliminated 50 beds by redesigning a major component of the project — a seven-story tower slated for the parking lot behind the PSB on West Wilson Street.  

Supervisor Carousel Bayrd, District 8, said both options would result in the same reduction. 

“It’s very true we need a new jail imminently,” Bayrd said, referencing the outdated and dangerous City-County Building jail. “One doesn’t take extra time. One doesn’t cost us extra money. One does.”   

Plans for the jail, which include consolidating the jail’s three facilities by building a new tower, calls for 922 beds or 91 fewer than the 1,013 beds that exist across the sixth and seventh floor of the City-County Building, the PSB and the Ferris Huber Center on the city’s south side.    

Taking away 50 beds from the PSB would result in a reduction of minimum security beds, while redesigning the tower to remove the beds would mean fewer medium and maximum security beds.  

Sheriff David Mahoney, who announced this week he will be retiring in May, said removing higher security beds would ultimately increase safety risks to inmates and deputies. Designing the tower with fewer beds “severely limits our flexibility,” he said, and could result in transporting inmates out of the county.

Redesigning the jail would cost an estimated $90,000, according to county staff, and Mahoney said the new design could result in $1.5 million of increased operating costs.  

[Dane County to consider closing jail housing unit after tower is constructed]

Supporters of the adopted resolution argue that reforming the criminal justice system is about significantly more than a new building. Permanently reducing the jail population requires local police departments, the district attorney’s office and courts also engaging in reform. 

“The criminal justice system is not a building,” said County Board Chair Analiese Eicher, who represents District 3. “Change in the criminal justice system is not just going to come from this board.” 

Those who supported the substitute proposal, which failed on a 9-28 vote, favored its stronger language. The capacity reduction in the substitute would have become binding once the board signed off on new design and construction contracts. 

“A jail is not criminal justice reform. That’s the problem with it,” Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, District 2, said. “That’s the problem with spending $150 million on this building is because it’s the opposite of criminal justice reform.” 

Supervisor Yogesh Chawla, District 6, expressed disappointment that the board isn’t considering how to integrate a mental health crisis center within the renovated jail. Both he and Supervisor Elizabeth Doyle, District 1, argued the adopted resolution does not go far enough.

“We have an opportunity to impact generations and not just move forward with a project because it’s easier, it’s less cumbersome, it makes us feel good because we passed something related to the jail tonight, but it doesn't do anything of substance,” Doyle said. 

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