City News

Despite public outcry, county officials give jail renovation project final OK

A group called Derail the Jail has unsuccessfully attempted to sway county officials against funding a project that updates local prison facility conditions.

After about a decade-long saga surrounding what officials have called “dangerous” and “hazardous” local prison facilities, the Dane County Jail is finally slated for major renovations as part of the most expensive project in county history.

Amid interruptions by protesters chanting, “derail the jail” and “build the people, not the jail,” the Dane County Board passed a $538.1 million operating budget and a $114.9 million capital budget Monday night. The budget includes a $76 million proposal to update the Dane County Jail.

An amendment, proposed by Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, District 2, that eliminated jail renovations from the budget failed in a 32-4 vote.

Wegleitner said the project lacked support from those “most affected,” adding that the funding should be redirected to mental health services rather than investing in “a broken criminal justice system.”

“This is not a humanitarian proposal,” Wegleitner said. “‘People do not get better in jail. It is not a mental health facility.”

But most other county officials couldn’t justify putting off the renovations, which have been debated for nearly a decade, any longer.

Officials at the Dane County Sheriff’s Office have said the jail is in “dangerous” conditions in the past, with some noting declining building conditions and others a lack of resources for prisoners. Members of the county board echoed that sentiment.

“It’s a hazard,” said Supervisor Ronn Ferrell, District 15. “It’s a death trap.”

Supervisor Paul Rusk, District 12, said that while he doesn’t like the idea of spending “this kind of money” on incarceration, he would not support removing the funding.

“We have to [pass the jail renovation funding],” Rusk said. “If we don’t do this tonight, the status quo will continue.”

Some of the biggest changes in the first phase of the most recent renovation plan consolidate prison facilities in a county facility downtown and restructure prison policies.

The plan combines three separate prison facilities in the Public Safety Building on West Doty Street. Currently, the Dane County Jail also houses prisoners at two other locations, the City-County Building downtown and the Ferris Center for Huber Inmates.

The plan also eliminates solitary confinement, which is currently used at the jail, and reduces nearly 100 beds from the facility. The county executive’s office said the restructuring is the “clearest demonstration [the] project is being built based on need,” in a press release.

Groups of protesters, sometimes dozens of them, have held rallies against the jail renovation several times this month outside of the City-County Building. 

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