City News

Could downtown jail renovations contribute to racial inequality? Many community members think so

Dozens protested the Dane County Jail renovation Wednesday before a public hearing at city hall, where concerned citizens later filled a hearing room and overflow room.

Image By: Briana Tolksdorf

Dane County community members packed into a hearing before county officials Wednesday night, sparring over a proposed $75.2 million jail renovation project. The jail has been highly scrutinized in the past, with some noting dwindling building conditions and a lack of resources for prisoners.

Some of the biggest changes in the most recent renovation plan would consolidate prison facilities in the Public Safety Building downtown and end solitary confinement, which is currently used at the jail.

Madison resident Tamara Hill said her opposition to the renovation is part of an effort to “condemn white supremacy.” Renovating the jail would only widen the racial disparities within Dane County’s jails, she said.

Echoing these sentiments, Madison resident Annie Weatherby-Flowers invoked the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. in her opposition, decrying the jail as a choice of “order over justice.”

“This runs from Jim Crow right up to the 2013 Race to Equity report,” Weatherby-Flowers said, referring to a Dane County report showing racial inequity in the Madison area. “We’re not giving people boosts. We’re penalizing people because we want control.”

Supporters of the jail were equally outspoken. Madison resident David Blaska described the “beautiful jail” as being not just a jail, but as a “hospital” for treatment. The growing population of Madison and Dane County communities was further reason to invest in a modern downtown jail with greater capacity, Blaska said.

“But you can’t solve this problem by throwing more people in jail,” an audience member interjected.

Jim Wertsch, a Madison resident, agreed, citing his experience as a career Minnesota public health official specializing in drugs and alcohol. “It will not be a hospital,” he retorted.

Wertsch said that, despite its rapid growth, Minnesota has worked to reduce their prisoner retention rates by moving funding from prisons to investment in “diversion programs,” ranging from drug rehabilitation to comprehensive improvements in the education system.

“What you’ve got here is a revolving door,” he said. “It is a folly.”

Diversion programs were frequently mentioned by the project’s supporters as a reason to support the prison. But such programs miss the larger point of why many Madisonians oppose the jail, said Madison resident Damon Terrell.

“I am who you all wanted me to be,” Terrell said, referencing his Madison upbringing and his work as a teacher. “I am also one of those people, where you’re like, ‘Why aren’t they having kids? Why aren’t they sticking around?’ . . . It’s because we poisoned our lakes. It’s because we build jails. It’s because we make it hard for people like me to exist.”

Rallying to ‘derail the jail’

Leading up to the hearing Wednesday night, opponents gathered outside of city hall, calling on county officials to scrap the renovation project and invest in other services.

Demonstrators chanted, “Derail the jail, we can definitely tell, that this project is racist as hell,” and wielded signs with phrases like “housing not handcuffs.”

Several community leaders at the rally — which was organized by a group known as Derail the Jail — spoke in front of the crowd, including Bianca Gomez, a coordinator of Freedom, Inc., an organization that serves low- to no-income communities of color in Dane County.

Gomez told the crowd she believes that instead of investing in prisons, the city should invest in resources and services that aid people of color, survivors of domestic violence and homeless individuals.

“We need housing, we need food, we need mental wellness services,” Gomez said.

Dane County Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner also spoke out against the proposal and called on the city to “fund housing, not jail cells … Health care, not incarceration.”

Madison resident Patricia Hammel attended the rally because she said she is concerned about the county’s spending on incarceration over possible alternatives, such as mental health treatment programs. Hammel also said the city’s racial disparities contribute to the problem.

“[The Dane County sheriff] knows that most people in jail are there for reasons other than real danger to the public,” Hammel said, “And our budget should reflect that.”

According to its Facebook page, Derail the Jail is dedicated to “seeing alternatives to spending $75M on a broken system.”

County officials will vote on the 2018 budget Nov. 20th.

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