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City-County Building Jail

Sgt. R.J. Lurquin stands in the City-County Building portion of the Dane County Jail. Built in 1953, the jail’s linear hallways make supervision difficult and the vertical bars create a risk for inmates who may consider harming themselves.

Plans for a major renovation of the Dane County Jail could see significant changes after the county learned it could cost up to $150 million to build an addition next to the downtown Public Safety Building.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said in an interview Thursday that jail consultants and a design firm estimated that constructing a new building could cost between $140 million and $150 million — up to twice as much as originally budgeted for the first iteration of the project.

“That’s obviously more than we had banked on,” Parisi said.

In the 2018 budget, the Dane County Board of Supervisors approved a $76 million renovation project, which aimed to consolidate the jail's three facilities into one expanded Public Safety Building at 115 W. Doty St.

This proposal would have closed the maximum security jail on the top two floors of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and the work-release Ferris Huber Center on the Alliant Energy Center’s campus. It would also have added floors to the Public Safety Building, which is located next to City Hall across Carroll Street.

But the county learned in October that the Public Safety Building could not support additional weight, even though it was built in the 1990s with the intention of adding floors. To address this problem, the county decided to build a facility next to the Public Safety Building.

Parisi said the County Board will consider authorizing an additional $186,000 for consultant Mead & Hunt to evaluate three alternative options. In total, the county will have funded $4.8 million worth of jail project studies including the additional expenditure.

At $76 million, renovating the jail was already the most expensive capital budget project in the history of Dane County.

“We want to make sure we know all the options, the pluses, the minuses, the cost, the operating cost, so that we can make an informed decision moving forward,” Parisi said.

If additional funding is approved by the Dane County Board, Mead & Hunt will evaluate three possible alternative renovation options.  

The first would involve renovating the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building and the Public Safety Building. In addition, this plan would replace the Huber Center at a new "greenfield" site, or underdeveloped land that is eyed for urban development projects.

In the second option, the county would renovate the Public Safety Building and use it to house work-release and minimum security inmates. This would also involve building a new facility on a greenfield site that would house maximum and medium security inmates and provide medical, mental health and rehabilitation services.

The third alternative would consolidate all jail operations into a new site. The county could vacate the City-County Building jail, Huber Center and the Public Safety Building. It could then look into re-purposing or selling the Public Safety Building, which could potentially offset the cost of building at a greenfield site.

Building a new facility from the ground up comes with greater costs. The current construction and economic climate factored into the increased estimates.

Jeff Hook, deputy chief with the sheriff’s office, said building a facility next to the Public Safety Building was expensive because it required constructing two support floors that were estimated to cost $20 million. 

This cost would not be a factor in building at a greenfield site.

Sheriff Dave Mahoney said federally-imposed tariffs on steel and a lack of skilled workers in the state are driving up project costs.

Changes to the jail are needed to address significant threats to the welfare of inmates and staff who work in the jail.

In December 2016, consultants recommended closing the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building with “due haste” because of the dangers they pose to both inmates and staff.

The antiquated facility, built in 1953 and described as “Alcatraz-like," has bars and linear hallways that make supervision difficult. Also in 2016, the Dane County Board approved $4.4 million in interim jail fixes like fixing broken locks.

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In September, an inmate hung himself there. Most recently, an 18-year-old woman attempted suicide last Monday by using a ligature to cut off her own airway. Deputies intervened and removed the ligature.  

“The life and safety is still the number one issue and continues to be the paramount of concern,” Mahoney said.

Currently, the jail uses solitary confinement cells and cannot adequately provide for the medical and mental health needs of inmates.

Whichever option the county ultimately chooses, the jail renovation would decrease the number of jail beds by about 10 percent, minimize the use of solitary confinement cells, provide separate space for 17-year-old inmates, increase programming space and bring the jail into compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

By approving the project funding in the 2018 budget, Dane County Board Chair Sharon Corrigan said the board recognized the dire circumstances in the jail, and the liability issues the sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building pose for the county.

“As responsible stewards of the county's resources and as people who care about the success of people who come into our facility when they go back out, we felt like we had to do that,” Corrigan said. “We ‘re trying to figure out the most cost effective way of solving those problems.”

A change order authorizing the additional $186,000 will be introduced Monday. Corrigan said the Public Protection and Judiciary and Public Works committees will sign off on the funding before it comes to the County Board, likely in March. She estimated that results of the study will be finished over the summer. 

The initial timeline projected the renovations, assuming construction began in 2020, would be complete in winter or spring 2022. This timeline also assumed the Public Safety Building would be expanded vertically. 

Josh Wescott, Parisi's chief of staff, said at this point, the project is a few months behind the initial timeline estimates. 

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.