The controversial $148 million Dane County Jail consolidation project is now hitting the city of Madison review process and will be considered in commission meetings over the next several weeks.
The major Downtown redevelopment, which would result in the closing of two of the county’s jail facilities and the construction of a new seven-story tower behind a third jail facility, can’t move forward without approval from the Madison City Council.
“Because it is obviously such a major proposal, it does require thorough city review under the zoning code,” said Ald. Mike Verveer, who represents the area on the City Council.
The project will first go to the Madison Urban Design Commission for a recommendation June 30. Unless the measure gets delayed, it will next be reviewed by the Plan Commission July 12 and go to the City Council for a final decision on July 20.
Even if the project ultimately gets approved, the process will likely be bumpy. When the Dane County Board authorized funding for the jail in June 2019, more than 50 protesters shut down the meeting with chants of “shame” and “build people, not jails.”
At the start of June, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said it would be at least another month to month-and-a-half until in-person meetings can resume, so the upcoming jail meetings most likely will not be in person. But they should draw dozens of outspoken critics of the jail project and lead to hours of public testimony over Zoom.
Opponents of the jail project say the $148 million would be better spent on community programs to prevent people from going to jail in the first place. They argue that when a new jail is built, law enforcement will fill it with people who don’t necessarily need to be locked up there.
But former Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney has long contended that the county’s jail facilities need dramatic improvements, particularly the jail in the City-County Building, which he has called dangerous and inhumane.
Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett has yet to publicly take a stance on the jail project, but has said inmates need to be treated with “dignity and respect and humanity.” He declined to answer a question from the Wisconsin State Journal in May about whether the current jail facilities treat inmates humanely.
The plans for the jail consolidation would close the aging Ferris Huber Center for minimum-security inmates, as well as the maximum-security City-County Building jail, which was built in the 1950s and has steel bars between cells.
Mahoney said in November that the bars made it “virtually impossible” to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the jail because of the airflow between cells. An outbreak in the jail in November resulted in 120 COVID-19 cases among inmates through the end of December.
The new jail tower, which would be behind the Downtown Public Safety Building jail, would have medical areas to isolate inmates and end the use of solitary confinement. The United Nations considers spending more than 15 days in solitary confinement a form of torture.
The new plans also decrease the total number of jail beds by 91. The current jail facilities have 1,013 beds, while the new jail would have 922.
In January, the County Board approved a resolution urging the sheriff to close a 50-bed section of the Public Safety Building jail once the tower is built, but that decision would ultimately be up to the sheriff.
A resolution that would have redesigned the tower to further reduce the jail capacity failed to make it out of a county committee.
Under current plans, two spaces on the third floor, containing a total of about 100 beds, could still be converted into program space to decrease the jail capacity if the county permanently reduces the jail population.
Barrett has said his “number one goal” as sheriff is maintaining a low jail population through diversion programs, community policing and solving problems without necessarily arresting people or taking them to jail.
The jail population dropped considerably during the pandemic, but it’s unclear whether that reduction will stick around. Barrett has acknowledged that some of the pandemic-era changes “may not be sustainable.”
On Friday, the Dane County Jail had 526 inmates under its roof.
When City Council members debate the jail project, they technically won’t be deciding whether they think the county should or shouldn’t have a new jail, but whether the development meets the legal requirements laid out in the city’s zoning code.
The county’s land use request that is up for consideration is for the city to rezone the property so it can build the seven-story tower, city Planning Division director Heather Stouder said.
To get approved, the zoning request has to meet certain standards, Stouder said. According to city law for this type of request, those standards include complying with state and federal law, being consistent with the “Comprehensive Plan” that outlines goals for the city’s future and being “based on public health, safety and welfare” of residents.
If the requirements are met, the council is supposed to approve the development — even if it opposes the project for another reason.
City planning staff will prepare a report on whether the standards are met and make a recommendation to the council.
Verveer said he doesn’t know how he’s going to vote yet. He said the county is putting “substantial public resources” toward jail beds instead of human services. But he also noted that “the current jail conditions are exceedingly inhumane.”
At the same time, Verveer said he recognizes the reality that City Council members “are expected to uphold the zoning code.”
“This is going to be a tough decision,” he said.