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Sunday, July 03, 2022

County Board recommends reducing jail capacity by 50

The Dane County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution on January 21st recommending that the county Sheriff's department close a housing unit of the county jail following the completion of a $148 million consolidation project.

The resolution requests the closure of a 50-bed housing pod from the downtown Public Safety Building, one of three facilities which makes up Dane County’s jail system, lowering the prisoner capacity of the facility from 922 to 872 upon the completion of an addition to the building.  

The resolution comes as part of $148 million effort to overhaul Dane County's aging jail system by constructing a new, seven-story tower adjacent to the current PSB that would replace the county’s other two detention centers.

Supervisors passed the resolution in a 30-7 vote as a compromise measure to an earlier proposal that would have similarly reduced capacity and would have required an internal restructuring of the new tower.  According to county staff, a redesign of the jail would cost $90,000 and add an additional $1.5 million in operating costs.

Supervisor Carousel Bayrd, District 8, explained why she chose to vote for the new resolution, which requests that the Dane County Sheriff's department not use one of the available housing pods in the PSB.

“It’s very true we need a new jail imminently,” Bayrd said in an interview with Cap Time. “One [proposal] doesn’t take extra time. One doesn’t cost us extra money. One does.”   

Some members of the Supervisor Board expressed their frustration with the resolution, which relies on the cooperation of the Dane County Sheriff's department.  Supervisor Yogesh Chawla, District 6, commented that the resolution “does a whole lot of nothing.”

County supervisor Elizabeth Doyle, District 1, commented that the non-binding resolution fails to realize the demands for criminal justice reform that were a defining theme of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.  

“We have an opportunity to impact generations and not just move forward with a project because it’s easier, it’s less cumbersome, it makes us feel good because we passed something related to the jail tonight, but it doesn't do anything of substance,” Doyle said.  

This was a sentiment shared by Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, District 2, who similarly stated her disappointment with the resolution and the greater jail consolidation program.

“A jail is not criminal justice reform. That’s the problem with it,” Wegleitnersaid. “That’s the problem with spending $150 million on this building ... it’s the opposite of criminal justice reform.” 

Several supervisors defended the resolution, with County Board Chari Analiese Eicher, District 3,  claiming meaningful criminal justice reform ought to come from other governing bodies

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“The criminal justice system is not a building,” said Eicher. “Change in the criminal justice system is not just going to come from this board.”

County supervisors also cited logistical concerns about permanently reducing the capacity of the Dane county jail system with Julie Schwellenbach, district 20, saying that with less space, inmates are more likely to spread diseases such as COVID-19.

“If we reduce our space too much, I have serious concerns about keeping people safe when we have another viral infection like COVID,” said Schwellenbach.

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