Dane County’s finance committee listened to arguments from community members Monday night over a resolution to address mental health needs and racial disparities in the jail system.
The resolution calls for the creation of a facility to serve individuals with mental health needs, the elimination of solitary confinement and the renovation and possible expansion of the Dane County Jail.
Opponents of the resolution criticized the use of the private contractor Mead & Hunt to identify life and safety issues within the current jail in place of state or federal regulators, calling Mead & Hunt’s contract to also renovate the jail a conflict of interest. Critics also pointed out the Middleton firm’s lack of experience in building or renovating jails.
“Why hire an outside contractor instead of simply having federal and state regulators?” asked community member Carl Sack.
Madison’s Young, Gifted and Black Coalition also spoke out against the resolution. Calling jails a life and safety issue, coalition representatives argued for no jail renovations, the release of 350 black inmates and county investment in black community groups.
“We do not support investing any money in an institution that negatively impacts the black community in the Madison and Dane County area,” YGB member Alex Chavez said. “Invest money in the economic development of the black community so that we can address what we see as life and safety issues in the community.”
A section of the resolution that permits the jail’s expansion to house youth offenders from outside Dane County drew the ire of community members.
“The issue of young people in an adult jail is something that is a concern to many,” said Nino Rodriguez of the MOSES Jail Task Force. “[The county should be] making sure that youth do not find themselves in our jails [and] are given priority.”
Community members instead called for county spending to be diverted away from the jail and toward preventing the jailing of Dane County residents.
Linda Ketcham, director of the Madison-area Urban Ministry called for additional funding for homeless shelters as a way to keep the mentally ill out of jail.
“We need to figure out how this county board can work with the city government to address the criminalization of homelessness,” Ketcham said.
Members of the finance committee defended the resolution’s stipulation that the jail be renovated because certain cells lend themselves to suicide attempts.
After hearing community concerns, the committee decided to postpone its decision on the resolution to grant an opportunity to amend it.