As the Dane County Board prepares to debate a $76 million jail renovation, this much is clear: The aging cell blocks at the City-County Building — some used to hold mentally ill offenders in solitary confinement — need to go.
The narrow cells, just 6 feet by 9 feet with one tiny window facing a hallway, can make the condition and behavior of unstable people worse than when they were arrested in the first place.
To his credit, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney has advocated for modern facilities on moral, legal and public safety grounds for years. The 1954-vintage cell blocks at the City-County Building are badly outdated, cruel and even dangerous.
Former Dane County Sheriff Rick Raemisch has similarly called lengthy stays in solitary confinement unethical and counterproductive. Having led Wisconsin’s prison system before being put in charge of Colorado’s, Raemisch wrote a column in the New York Times last week highlighting his agency’s success at ending long-term segregation.
Inmates held for weeks in small, solitary rooms are more likely to reoffend, Raemish noted, citing research. And that’s a direct threat to public safety because the vast majority of offenders are eventually released.
Dane County’s $76 million jail renovation project would close the dated top two floors of cells at the City-County Building in Downtown Madison and add four floors of modern facilities to the nearby and existing Public Safety Building, 115 W. Doty St. County Executive Joe Parisi has included the building plan in his county budget, with a public hearing tonight at 7 p.m. at the City-County Building.
The dramatically improved jail would include 64 mental health beds and 128 medical beds to avoid confining mentally ill or injured inmates in tiny segregation cells. The expanded jail also would offer more programming to help offenders find jobs and housing when released, as well as treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.
Most of the inmates at the renovated and expanded Public Safety Building would be held in 60-person pods centered around a larger common area where deputies would have an easier time monitoring and engaging with the jail population.
Some inmates could still be separated from their peers. But not for long periods in tight, stark spaces.
Overall, the number of jail beds would fall by 91 to 922, which reflects greater use of electronic monitoring and alternatives to incarceration. We’d like to hear more discussion about future law enforcement needs in fast-growing Dane County. About 785 inmates were held in county jail facilities Tuesday, according to the sheriff’s office. That includes 12 men and four women in 24 segregation cells at the City-County Building, which would be closed under the jail renovation plan.
Doing away with these aging cells that too often exacerbate bad behavior should be the top priority of any jail project.