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Home / Commentary / VIEW FROM AROUND THE STATE: $76 million Dane County jail project is best option

VIEW FROM AROUND THE STATE: $76 million Dane County jail project is best option

How bad are Dane County’s 1954-vintage cell blocks at the City-County Building in downtown Madison?

“Alcatraz came to our jail to see how to build their facilities,” Sheriff Dave Mahoney says.

He’s kidding, of course, about Dane County’s oldest jail cells being the inspiration for the notoriously harsh island prison in San Francisco Bay.

But Mahoney still makes a good point.

The jail cells at the City-County Building must close because they are terribly outdated, cruel, dangerous and inefficient. The doors and locks are faulty. Metal bars have allowed suicide attempts — six in one month, according to the sheriff.

And the jail’s solitary-confinement cells — measuring just 6 feet by 9 feet with one tiny window — can and often do exacerbate the conditions and bad behavior of inmates, especially those with mental illnesses. That’s bad for public safety because most jail inmates will be released back into the public within a few weeks.

The Dane County Board this week should make sure the City-County cell blocks close by approving a $76 million consolidation and renovation project, which Mahoney strongly supports and which County Executive Joe Parisi included in his budget request.

The proposal would put the jail and everything related to it in one spot, at the Public Safety Building, one block off the Capitol Square.

This greatly improved jail would have not only 64 mental-health beds but also 128 medical beds to accommodate inmates with special needs. The renovated jail also would have much more space for programming and recreation.

Inmates could get help with substance abuse, mental health, education and employment.

Yet it would still be a jail, protecting the public from people who have been deemed unsafe or have failed to abide by the rules of release.

Most of the inmates at the redesigned jail would be held in 60-person pods centered on a larger common area where deputies would have an easier time monitoring and dealing with the jail population.

Some inmates could still be separated from their peers. But not for long periods in tight, bleak spaces.

In total, the number of jail beds would fall by 91 to 922, the result of a greater reliance on electronic monitoring and alternatives to incarceration.

The more efficient jail could produce modest savings over time — something the County Board should encourage and closely monitor. The benefits could include a reduced need for guards and an ability to hire more treatment specialists.

The county also should pursue work opportunities for longer-term inmates. They could cook meals for fellow offenders and do laundry to improve their chances of that employment. Those services don’t occur on site now.

The $76 million proposal is the best option the county board has. The board should approve the project this week to improve the troubled lives of inmates and to better protect the public.

– Wisconsin State Journal

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