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Dane County Jail project moving forward again as architects rein in budget

Dane County Jail.JPG

A rendering of the Dane County Jail tower. 

The Dane County Jail reconstruction project is moving forward again after the design team and architects reworked plans to bring the project back within its $148 million budget.

The jail consolidation project had been delayed several months in September because it was running over budget by about $20 million. The plans had included building an eight-story tower on the parking lot behind the Downtown Public Safety Building jail and closing two outdated jail facilities.

Dane County Board Chair Analiese Eicher said now that the project is under budget it is “fairly on schedule.”

The next step is for the architecture company Mead & Hunt to complete construction documents and seek bids for a contract with a construction company. The County Board would need to approve that contract and could vote on it as soon as this summer.

In a presentation from the company on Tuesday, project manager Chris Harp said his team was able to rein in the budget by making several changes including reducing the height of the building by 10 feet, mainly by eliminating a mechanical floor and moving the equipment to other areas.

A floor was also removed by combining the second and third floors into one taller floor with a two-tiered housing unit. With the reductions, the building is now about seven stories.

The new plans do not change the 922 beds planned for the space, Harp said. The current jail has 1,013 beds, so the project reduces the total bed count by 91.

Two spaces on the third floor, containing a total of about 100 beds, could be converted into program space if the county is able to permanently reduce its jail population.

Dayroom rendering.JPG

Plans for the Dane County Jail include increased area for recreation and programming space, such as the dayroom rendering shown above. 

Some County Board members questioned why the county can’t plan for the two areas to be program space from the start, given the decreases to the jail population during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By decreasing arrests and jail bookings, releasing some defendants who were facing minor charges, and working with police, the courts and other criminal justice partners, the Dane County Sheriff’s Office cut the jail population nearly in half during the pandemic.

Sup. Carousel Bayrd, 8th District, said the county should put pressure on those criminal justice partners to continue those population-reducing strategies after the pandemic by reducing the number of jail beds that would be available.

“Let’s hold their feet to the fire in a collaborative, hard-working way,” Bayrd said. “I want to be hopeful that change can happen.”

But Patrick Jablonski, a data scientist with Harpeth Research, who did a population analysis of the jail, said he expects arrests to “bounce back” after the pandemic and that the county can’t count on the COVID-19 changes to stick.

County Chief Deputy Jeff Hook said designing additional programming space would also cost more money because it’s work that Mead & Hunt is not contracted for.

Eicher said the County Board could make that change by amending the project.

Dane County residents said they were frustrated the county is putting money into building a new jail when those funds could be put toward community services. Erika Bach said it was “a slap to the face” to both people who are incarcerated and to community members who she said could be diverted from jail if they had more resources.

But Sup. Melissa Ratcliff, 36th District, said the current jail conditions are not humane and Sup. Maureen McCarville, 22nd District, said the current facility was a “god-awful place.”

“We all know we need a new jail,” Ratcliff said. “The City-County building is not safe.”

Harp said construction could start as soon as November 2021.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Patrick Jablonski's affiliation. He is a data scientist with Harpeth Research.] 

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