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Dane County Board approves $148M in jail renovations after opponents shut down meeting

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Protesters took over a Dane County Board meeting Thursday before supervisors approved a $148 million plan to update and consolidate the county’s jails, with demonstrators chanting and yelling “our meeting,” “shut them down” and “build people, not jails.”

With shouts of "shame" from the audience, supervisors voted 26-4 early Friday, with three board members absent, to approve the plan, which costs $72 million more than they had initially approved and includes building an eight-story tower on the parking lot behind the Downtown Public Safety Building jail and closing two jail facilities that are outdated.

The aging Ferris Huber Center, where minimum-security work-release prisoners stay, and the maximum-security cells in the City-County Building will be closed. The City-County Building jail, opened in the 1950s, has been described by Sheriff Dave Mahoney as dangerous and inhumane.

Prior to the vote, the meeting came to a standstill for 15 minutes after demonstrators yelled over Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, telling him to “sit down.”

Ozanne sitting

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne sits in silence as protesters chant, "Whose meeting? Our meeting." Ozanne had registered to speak in support of the remodel, but protesters shouted over him, telling him to, "Sit down." 

Those opposed to the jail renovation accused supervisors of having their minds made up to approve the plans before Thursday’s meeting.

“Y’all are actually hypocrites if you decide to build a new jail,” said Mahnker Dahnweih, a member of Freedom Inc. “You’re spending this money on locking black folks up.”

But Linda Hoskins, who said she volunteers to help inmates in the jail and was in favor of the renovation plan, said the county can support both community services to reduce incarceration and an update to the jail. She said the new plan is about caring for the people in the jail.

Hoskins said the county needs a facility that is "not a dungeon."

But Cassandra Steiner, of Madison, was skeptical that the county would actually commit to reinvesting in communities and diverting people from jail. 

"We know that when jails are built, cops find a way to fill those jails," Steiner said. 

Kim Gasper-Rabuck yelling

Kim Gasper-Rabuck, who said her 16-year-old black son has a "bulls-eye on his back", yells out in opposition to the Dane County Jail update and consolidation. Gasper-Rabuck spoke well over her allotted time of 5 minutes, continuing to yell and slam her hands on the table after the county board turned off her mic. 

The meeting was interrupted several times by outbursts from local anti-incarceration activists opposed to the project, with many arguing that the funds should be put toward services to help keep people out of jail.

Audience members swore and yelled at county supervisors, talked over supporters of the project and refused to leave the floor of the meeting room when staff told them they were not allowed to sit there.

Man refuses to move

A protester refuses to move after sitting in a chair among board members.

Before being interrupted by protesters, Ozanne said he does not support increasing the number of people in jail, but the updates to the county’s jail facilities are necessary to “create a humane facility.”

The new tower would have mental health and medical beds, would greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement and would be a safer environment for maximum security inmates who are currently housed at the City-County Building. The new plan would also reduce the total number of jail beds.

The preferred plan is the cheapest of four options that had been proposed after structural roadblocks halted the original, far less expensive, plan to consolidate the county’s jails. The board had originally approved adding four floors atop the Public Safety Building at a price tag of $76 million, but contractors said the building could not structurally carry the extra weight of those floors.

The three other options were:

  • Constructing a new jail constructed at an unidentified location at a cost of $220 million.
  • Renovating the Public Safety Building and constructing a new facility at a cost of $164.5 million.
  • Renovating the Public Safety Building and City-County Building and constructing a new facility at a cost of $161 million.

More than 20 people spoke against the jail renovations, with more than 60 more registering in opposition to the plan. Three spoke in favor, with about another 15 registering in support. 

There was also vocal opposition for plans to renovate and expand the juvenile detention center on the second floor of the City-County Building. More than 20 people either spoke or registered in opposition of the measure.

Zon Moua speaking

Zon Moua, director of Youth Organizing a Freedom, Inc., speaks in opposition to the plan for expanding the juvenile detention center. "What young people need to be successful is not cages," she says. "Shame on you if you pass this."

On a voice vote, the county board approved the $264,000 contract with an architecture firm to start plans for the remodel of the juvenile detention center. The county hopes to be one of several smaller youth prisons following the state-ordered closure of the two current youth prisons, after years of misconduct and abuse allegations there. 

On the overall jail consolidation measure, the four county board members who voted in opposition were Sups. Heidi Wegleitner, 2nd District; Yogesh Chawla, 6th District; Richard Kilmer, 4th District; and Jason Knoll, 32nd District. Absent were Sups. Shelia Stubbs, 23rd District; Nikole Jones, 28th District; and Huong Nguyen-Hilfiger, 14th District.

Nick Puetz

Nick Puetz, who was opposed to the plan to consolidate the jail, reacts after the Dane County Board approves the measure. 

Disappointed with the supervisor's support of the jail project, Chawla called on the county board to "do better" for the community and be diligent in reducing the jail population and eliminating racial disparities. 

"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," Chawla said. "I hope we pursue these decarceration alternatives with the same vigor and velocity that we are pursuing the south tower jail project."

The project is slated to be completed in mid-2024.

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