Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney has been talking about the need for a safer jail since he first campaigned for sheriff in 2006. Chief Deputy Jeff Hook has been working on the issue even longer, since 2003.
Mahoney mused that Hook knows all the “dirty history,” as he has been part of at least 14 separate studies about county jail space.
Now the end could be near, with approval by the Dane County Board possible in June on a $150-million annex, or “south tower,” next to the Public Safety Building downtown. That outcome became more likely this week when the latest study showed that three alternatives to the tower would be even more expensive.
County Executive Joe Parisi told Cap Times reporter Abigail Becker that it would be “irresponsible” not to approve a jail that has “a focus on preventing people from getting there and helping the people who do get there to succeed once they’re out.” County Board Chair Sharon Corrigan voiced similar support in the same story.
Through the years, efforts by Mahoney and Hook have reminded me of Sisyphus, the mythological Greek king forced to endlessly push a boulder up a hill in the underworld, only to falter near the top and see it roll back down.
This time, it looks like the boulder could get to the top.
The most recent setback followed approval in 2017 of a $76-million plan to add floors to the existing Public Safety Building. But it was discovered that the building could not support the weight, so the more expensive “tower” concept eventually replaced it.
Mahoney and Hook sound keenly aware that the most expensive public project in county history lacks political appeal, so he and Hook were out again pushing its merits recently to the Cap Times editorial board. Mahoney reiterated how hard it is to get average people to understand how much the jail population has changed over time.
He recalled his first race while sitting in my Cap Times office for an endorsement interview: “One of the biggest challenges we have, if I go back to 2006, when I sat in this room for my first campaign, was how we needed to change the (public’s) mindset and begin looking at why people are coming into the system.” Most, he said, had drug and alcohol addictions.
As a columnist, I’ve written intermittently for years about the jail issue. My 2014 “jailhouse blues” column outlined the problem, which hasn’t changed.
The county’s jail facilities are woefully inadequate, not because the jail is bursting with prisoners, but because its central purpose has changed over time from incarcerating bad guys who committed serious crimes to becoming landing spots for an increasing number of the mentally ill, many of whom have committed no real crimes but are big-time public nuisances.
Beyond that is the fact that the jail atop the City-County Building reflects the more Alcatraz-like sensibilities of when it opened in 1953, right down to the tiny, windowless solitary confinement cells I toured years ago. They are awful.
Today, Mahoney notes those two floors present a sort of double whammy: “It’s where we house the majority of our most mentally ill and so you have kind of a double negative, you have the mentally ill in the most failing infrastructure and the most — I say it because it's true — the most inhumane housing.”
In addition to the jail atop city hall, other current jail facilities include the Public Safety Building and the work-release Ferris Huber Center on Madison’s south side. The City-County Building space would be closed and the Huber Center demolished under the current proposal, so all jail services would take place in the Public Safety Building and the new tower, which would face West Wilson Street.
I asked Mahoney and Hook about the politics of the issue.
“It’s not only the cost,” Hook said. “No county board — conservative or liberal, it doesn’t matter — wants to build a jail. No county board in any county.”
“It’s not a feel-good project,” Mahoney added. “Part of it is this perception that jails are full of highly dangerous people and we should just lock them up … when in reality the vast majority are people … suffering from drug and alcohol addiction” committing non-violent crimes to feed their habits.
Added Hook: “The reality of it is, with all these studies and years gone by, we’re sort of at the end of the game.”
Mahoney said the jail is no vanity project for him, but rather reflects the will of a Madison community that wants effective, compassionate and appropriate treatment of those jailed.
“This (proposal) is a jail that represents the priorities and values of our community, and we have engaged the community,” he said. “That’s why today between the three facilities we have 1,013 beds and the community has told us, we want to move toward decreasing beds in the jail. So, we have agreed to move from 1,013 beds to about 920 beds.”
Mahoney said the jail project had previously been “kicked down the road” but he thinks “everybody has come to the realization — everybody — that we have to do this because we literally are playing roulette every day with the lives of people who are incarcerated.”
Mahoney argued the county really has no alternative.
Some say “we could just close the jail and find other alternatives. The fact is that, you know that sounds good. But there are always going to be people in jail, there are always going to be people with mental illness in jail. It’s how we want to house those individuals.”
Mahoney said he has an answer for any Dane County board supervisor who might oppose the project: “Well, are you in favor of keeping it the way it is? Because you have constituents in your district who are either incarcerated or have family members who are incarcerated, because everybody who’s in jail is going back into our community.”
He continued: “They came from our neighborhoods, they’re going back into those neighborhoods. What would you say to them or their families as a district supervisor about keeping it the way it is? ‘Well, I don’t think it should stay the way it is.’ Well, you can’t have it both ways. You favor an economical, practical, and cost-effective replacement or you support keeping it the way it is. That’s the way it is.”
Added Hook: “There is no third path.”