If We Act With Courage and Vision, We Can Stop This Jail

An interview with Dane County Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner by Karl Locher

The Dane County Board of Supervisors initially approved the Dane County Jail Consolidation Project in 2017, followed by a doubling of the project budget to a staggering $225 million in 2019. The jail project has been a central subject of county politics for years. Recently, Supervisor Elizabeth Doyle put forward a new resolution to halt the project, motivated by the successful efforts to reduce the jail population during the COVID-19 pandemic. DSA member Karl Locher spoke with longtime Dane County District 2 Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner about the state of the jail project and the renewed opportunity our community has to stop it in its tracks.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Karl Locher: Could you tell us what the jail expansion and renovation project is?

Heidi Wegleitner: Yeah, the supporters call it the jail consolidation project, but it’s basically a new jail on the existing public safety building site downtown. It involves building a new eight story tower in the parking lot that is behind the existing public safety building. It’s 922 beds and costs $148 million, that’s $225 million with interest, and it’s probably already projected to be more expensive than that, as you know big projects like these often run over budget. The earliest it would actually be open would be 2025. The plan that was approved a year ago said the final quarter or late 2024, but I think the Sheriff has been quoted more recently saying it’s 2025. Right now we have three jails, we have the Ferris Center, the 6th and 7th floors of the City County building, which is for the “higher security people,” and we have the Public Safety Building. So this would put everyone under one roof and be a massive restructuring and a huge new construction project.

KL: The jail has gone through various phases of approval. Could you talk about these stages and what kinds of actions and campaigns have come forward to try and stop the jail? What has that looked like from the standpoint of the Dane County Board of Supervisors?

HW: The Sheriff has been pushing a new jail for some time. Many of us on the County Board of Supervisors agree that it’s hard to dispute the inhumane conditions, particularly in the City County Building, given how old it is. It’s just not a place where anyone should be. This has been a concern for supervisors for some time, and the Sheriff has been pushing it. It’s been studied, and the first big study was in 2014. The study was about the different options and how many, how big should it be, what should it look like, what the programming should be.

There was a lot of pushback from the community, and in 2014, the Board of Supervisors introduced Resolution 556, which created three different community work groups to focus on alternatives, like reducing the length of stay in order to reduce the jail population, alternatives to incarceration, and then really looking at the mental health needs as well as ending solitary confinement. Those work groups created a report with a number of recommendations. They met over that summer – this was the summer after Tony Robinson was murdered, the summer of 2015 – and those work groups did some good work. We [the Dane County Board of Supervisors] got more recommendations and more studies about all the things we could be doing to reduce our jail population and reducing racial disparities in our incarceration. However, not many of [the recommendations] were implemented.

A coalition was organized in 2017 called the “Derail the Jail” coalition. A number of organizations were a part of [the coalition] and tried to stop [the jail] and resist it. The original plans presented to the board [by Mead & Hunt] were going to be about $130 million to $145 million, in that kind of range, and I think that the political leadership at that time thought that was really expensive. Somehow [the cost] got knocked down enough to be “more palatable incarceration,” and that’s what we saw in the 2018 budget proposal that we voted on in November 2017. That $76 million jail project was approved as part of the county budget, and only a handful of us opposed it. 

When the jail was originally approved in November of 2017, the idea was that there would be four floors built up from the existing Public Safety Building. Things moved forward with the studies and drawings and investment. Then in the Fall of 2018, about a year later, that turned out not to be possible structurally. The Public Safety Building wasn’t going to be able to hold the additional structure even though – apparently – the builders and designers of the jail back in the early 90’s said that’s what the county could do, that we would be able to build up. In reality, that wasn’t feasible, so they had to go back to the drawing board.

The County Board threw up their hands, like “they lied to us,” and talked about doing an investigation, but then we gave Mead & Hunt more money to do some more studies to figure out a new plan. They presented the County Board with a few options, but in a very rushed period of time, about six weeks last Spring [2019]. When [the proposals] were introduced in April, it was clear that the Sheriff supported the downtown site, and there wasn’t much meaningful discussion at all.

There were supervisors saying, “Why are these our three options? Where is the option that really focuses on diverting people from the jail? Why do we need so much space for mental health beds and mental health services within the jail? Shouldn’t we be making sure people who have mental health needs don’t end up in the jail to being with? Shouldn’t we focus on community-based services and crisis response?”

“There was this talking point of, ‘Well, we’re actually doing a pretty good job on incarceration, we’re not doing so bad if you look around the country and the state…’ Of course, the US is the worst country in the world when it comes to incarceration rates, so what we’re comparing ourselves to is not real great.”

Even though supervisors had good questions, they gave the board three bad options, and then one that looked the most reasonable because it was closest to the original plan, even though it’s twice as expensive, was approved.  It was a very top down process, and the supervisors were expected to fall in line because it was this jail project or nothing and you have to do something, so [the County Board approved a] plan for a $148 million south tower, which doubled the price of the jail in a short period of time.

At the time, among the criminal justice leaders and the Sheriff and others on the county board, there was this talking point of, “Well, we’re actually doing a pretty good job on incarceration, we’re not doing so bad if you look around the country and the state, our numbers aren’t so terrible.” Of course, the US is the worst country in the world when it comes to incarceration rates, so what we’re comparing ourselves to [here in Dane County] is not real great. Another problem with that argument is that it’s completely discounting the horrific racial disparities we have. Even if our relative jail population is maybe not as bad as some surrounding areas, our disparities are. You can’t defend that.

So, proponents of the new jail are saying, “We’re pretty good, there’s really nothing else we can do to really change these numbers, so this is the plan, this is what we have to do.” What we found out and what Supervisor Doyle has emphasized in her advocacy and in her resolution is that during COVID the criminal justice system, the Sheriff, the law enforcement agencies, the Department of Corrections, all these people that said there was not much else that we can do, they were actually successful in reducing the population dramatically, without any noteworthy adverse impacts.  Keeping people out of jail and away from the risk of COVID is a really good thing. And to be honest, that wasn’t because the County Board passed some law that said that you can’t bring people to jail, it’s because the Sheriff said “we don’t want you – law enforcement agencies arresting people and bringing them to the county jail, you need to figure out something else.” 

They have these other things they can do like ticketing and reports can be made and referrals for charges, you can give somebody a summons to show up at court, you don’t need to arrest them and bring them to jail. The Department of Corrections changed their process, so instead of somebody being on violation and being on hold and pulled into jail, because they’re suspected of violating their rules and facing some type of revocation of their probation, instead they were not brought to jail and still being investigated, but not sitting in jail while that investigation takes place. I think that’s the most significant change we’ve seen in COVID: actually reducing the number of people we bring to jail to begin with. That has had a really big impact. There’s other things we can do to further reduce the jail population, like hold weekend court. I’m not saying the County Board can make these things happen, but other criminal justice system players, like judges, could change these things. You could change the routine sentence from 6 months to 4 months and that would have a huge impact right there, and that’s been recommended to us as well.   

I think that the political space has been carved out and created by the Movement for Black Lives, and Black-led organizations, particularly the Black youth who have been organizing and mobilizing their message and putting pressure on the community, on political leaders, to defund police, to have community control over police. This has really caused folks to think about what they’re doing in these positions of power, to listen to those voices and to challenge themselves and various government bodies to be more responsive these demands. So that space, and the effect of COVID, has really created an opening and an opportunity to change the jail debate.  In fact, The Cap Times just came out with an editorial [this month], saying that Dane County needs to reconsider its jail plan.

KL: So, you’re just starting to allude to the change of circumstances around the jail and that we have some tangible evidence that we can bring the jail population down, pretty easily, with things that are readily available to us. What are the opportunities, now in this moment, for obstructing the jail project?

HW: We’re really trying to draw people in right now. Let’s draw in those supervisors who may have supported the jail in the past because they really wanted to see a more humane place for people who are incarcerated. We’re trying to draw them in and say, “Look at the facts here.” 

This resolution that Liz [Doyle] has introduced, it’s just a first step. It’s just a first step to say that we can do more, and we can do better. We can have safe conditions sooner under a different plan. The current plan [to expand the jail] doesn’t get us safe conditions for five more years, until 2025, and it is still wed to an idea that we are incarcerating lots of folks, and disproportionately Black folks, Brown folks, people of color. We want to make sure we are really encouraging these other supervisors to come onto this new path that we’re going to push forward together. We need to listen to the communities that are most impacted.  It’s not like it’s going to be easy, and it’s not like this resolution is the end all be all, but it’s really an important, intentional first step.

The earliest opportunity for [Doyle’s resolution] to come back to the County Board for a vote would be August 13th.  The summer schedule is kind of lighter, everything is a little lighter with COVID. Unfortunately there’s a lot of committees that aren’t even meeting right now.  If they were allowed to meet, they might say, “Hey we support this, put it on the agenda,” but we’re pretty much a skeletal bureaucracy of committees right now. The resolution has been referred to the Public Works, Personnel and Finance, and Public Protection and Judiciary Committees. You can go on dane.legistar.com so you can look at the weekly agendas that come out on Fridays.

“…The outcomes we are producing in Dane County are still fundamentally racist. We’re still having these big disparities. So to tinker around the edges and do little incremental changes when overall the structures are all the same and the largest public works investment in our history is going to be a monument that – even if it looks pretty on the outside, it’s really troubling.”

It’s really important that we get more supervisors on board, also that we get Joe Parisi and Analiese Eicher – the County Executive and County Board Chair – to support this. One bit of information that I think is a good sign is that Dane County basically has stopped moving forward with the project through the City of Madison approval process.  This project needs to go through the City Planning Commission and the Urban Design Commission, and it’s my understanding that it will not go back there in August and it’s essentially postponed indefinitely.  This is a sign that the executive branch of county government may be reconsidering [the new jail], and perhaps the mayor’s office is hesitant to support it as well.

But we really need more County Board supervisors, we need more organizations to endorse the resolution, we need to be asking people to write their supervisors, write letters to the editor, and get on board. I’ve been pretty busy, but I’m hoping sometime in the not-too-distant future to be able to pull together a meeting and invite different coalition representatives to come together and maybe do a training and talk about next steps, answer questions, and organize together on how we get the votes that we need to get [the Doyle resolution] through.

KL: You’ve described how COVID created the conditions in which we could experiment with lowering the jail population and all of these alternatives to incarceration. Yet, incarceration in Dane County is primarily an issue of racial justice. Do you have thoughts about how we can make sure that the issue of racial justice doesn’t get lost as we try and renew the fight against the jail?

HW: That’s a really important point and I really thank you for that question. It sounds cliché, but the budget is a reflection of our priorities and values. I think it’s really important, particularly for elected officials, to listen and represent communities that have been disadvantaged and marginalized or not historically included in public processes and government positions and elected leadership. I think it’s important to know when to take a step back and keep that space for the leaders who are in the streets to share their priorities and where they’d like to see $150 million be spent.

For me, this debate has always been about racial justice and it’s emotional. It’s been really frustrating to fight for so long. But I’m hopeful, and I really think something is changing. Clearly, we are in a historic moment of reckoning, of tension, of uncomfortability. Previously, I think that the Board may have been more closed off to that feeling and that loss of power and control over the narrative over the debate. I’m hopeful now that [the other supervisors] are reconsidering that and listening and kind of opening up more to our part in the system and to the voices of people with lived experience who have been directly impacted by incarceration, had their family members incarcerated, been incarcerated themselves, what they have to say about the harm of even a “fancy” jail. We’re still separating families, we’re still isolating people, we’re still robbing people of their potential to be contributing people in our community. So, I think we need to value that expertise and put down all of our studies and really act with courage and vision. 

Liz’s approach, and I think a successful one, will be to call people into this work. I’m not going to tell anyone what they should say or anything like that. I just think that even when we have the best intentions and we say the right things and we think we are taking the right steps and being thoughtful about our decision making, the outcomes we are producing in Dane County are still fundamentally racist. We’re still having these big disparities. So to tinker around the edges and do little incremental changes when overall the structures are all the same and the largest public works investment in our history is going to be a monument that – even if it looks pretty on the outside, it’s really troubling.

Nobody likes to be called a racist and nobody, I don’t think, that I sit on the County Board with ran because they wanted to oppress people, but we really do need to challenge ourselves to understand what people are feeling and to call them in and bring them along into this change. So, I’m hopeful that we will be successful in doing that.

Madison Area Democratic Socialists of America has endorsed the Doyle Resolution to halt the new jail project. You can read the resolution that was passed unanimously by our membership here.

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