by Karl Locher
2020 was a year of glaring, often painful, contradictions. For an ever-increasing number of people, the harsh realities of American life became visceral, cruel, and so atrocious as to elude novel and emphatic efforts to maintain a blissful ignorance. In many cases, these contradictions were a matter of personal tragedy – unforeseen unemployment, life-shattering eviction, illness, and death. In other cases, the contradictions were absurd and distant, like a perverse comedy playing out on a national stage. The post-election narcissistic breakdown of Donald Trump comes to mind. Here in Dane County, we bore witness to our own catastrophe in the making throughout 2020: the relentless effort of elected officials to silence opposition to a new Dane County Jail.
The existing Dane County Jail, and the building of a new jail, are clearly the site of political contradictions for our community. Massive numbers of people in Dane County have spoken against the jail, indicating clear support for its abolition. Indeed, given the broad community opposition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one can surmise that much of our community objects to the violent racism and white supremacy of the prison industrial complex. Yet, Dane County is among the most segregated counties in America, largely as a result of the nauseatingly high number of Black people in the Dane County Jail.
Despite community resistance to the jail, the actions of the Dane County Board of Supervisors – and the people who continue to vote them into office – demonstrated their lack of compunction about heavily investing in the prison industrial complex with an expensive new jail. The push for a new jail has been largely led by Sheriff Dave Mahoney, who has been hounding the Dane County Board of Supervisors to build it for years – and given that our last jail was just built in 1993, one wonders if the Office of Sheriff does anything else. In 2017, after much deliberation and the original “derail the jail” protests, the Board signed off on the $135 million ($76 million plus interest) project; then they did it again in 2019 after the cost of the project exploded to $220 million. What happened next revealed the depth of Dane County’s commitment to upholding the systems of white supremacy, which should force opponents of the jail to rethink their strategy.
The Doyle Resolution is met by a new County Board
2020 started off with a series of shake-ups in the political landscape of Dane County government: Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan retired, about one third of the Board of Supervisor seats turned over in an election, and the new Board was left with the task of cleaning up the endless over-runs of the jail consolidation project. Nonetheless, the jail seemed to be a settled issue as the project lurched forward.
Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, huge numbers of Madisonians joined activists across the country in demanding justice. The calls for justice throughout the summer renewed scrutiny of the Dane County Jail and activists voiced unequivocal opposition to policing and incarceration in our community. That opposition was also articulated through Resolution 145, which was introduced to the Dane County Board in July by first-term supervisor Elizabeth Doyle. The Doyle Resolution called for the county to halt the jail expansion project and implement non-carceral alternative responses to crimes. The resolution was endorsed by Madison Area DSA and quickly gained attention throughout the county.
As with most resolutions before the Board of Supervisors, Resolution 145 was sent through a comment and revision process by relevant county committees. After minor revisions from the Health and Human Needs committee and then amendments by the Public Protection and Judiciary committee that substantially weakened the resolution, by calling for the county to only “suspend” the jail project, the Public Works committee didn’t take up the resolution at all. Consequently, by the end of September the Doyle Resolution was set to languish in committee.
In a last-ditch effort, Supervisor Teran Peterson moved to pull Resolution 145 out of committee and place it on the agenda of the full County Board for discussion and vote. This motion failed, 28 to 9. Although this was an improvement over the 26 to 4 vote to pass the budget authorization for the jail in 2017, it was nonetheless a failure for justice.
Take that vote in for a minute. Three quarters of the Dane County Board of Supervisors voted against the idea of even entertaining a discussion and vote about the Doyle Resolution, much less actually passing it. An overwhelming majority of the Dane County Board of Supervisors blithely ignored hundreds of people who spoke in favor of Resolution 145 over the summer and fall. One can only speculate about the motivations of individual supervisors, but as a group, it is clear that the Dane County Board of Supervisors has no real interest in taking action to stop the single most powerful engine of racial oppression in Dane County. Thus, Resolution 145 died in committee, with no further discussion on the matter.
Dave Mahoney’s idea of safety
The failure of Resolution 145 shows that the Dane County Board of Supervisors has completely relinquished control of community justice to an autocratic sheriff. Dave Mahoney – now set to retire in May – has consolidated an outsized amount of power in Dane County, a fortune his Governor-appointed successor will undoubtedly inherit. Mahoney has done so by (1) forcefully controlling the narrative around the jail with a subverted rhetoric of humanism, (2) hoarding money and authority while providing very little in return, and (3) consistently rebuking the County Board’s modest efforts of budgetary authority. This last point has been made numerous times over recent years and the jail itself is clear evidence in support of it. What started as a project that would cost about $135 million with interest is now close to double the price.
That the County Board could be prodded into such a project demonstrates the sway Mahoney and his phalanx of criminal justice consultants holds over the Board’s debates. Dave Mahoney has been successful in building a brand of being a sensible Democrat, a pragmatic professional rather than a shrewd politician. Mahoney’s reputation has surely been aided by the stark contrast drawn by David Clarke’s Trumpian vigilantism in Milwaukee County. Nonetheless, Mahoney frequently positions himself and his office as exemplars of gentle humanism, while doing things like sending deputies to harass water protectors or complaining about Black people exercising their rights. Over time, the message seems to have stuck. On the announcement of Mahoney’s retirement, the County Board chair praised him as a force for innovation, words spoken without a trace of irony in a county that still uses cash bail and sends all manner of ill individuals to jail rather than to healthcare facilities.
While Mahoney’s rhetoric of upholding humanist values was a part of his political strategy, the end result is something more concerning than shamelessly uttered self-deceptions – the Dane County Sheriff’s Office has effectively expanded its statutory mandate. While state law requires that county sheriffs maintain county jails and process lawful orders presented to them, Sheriff Mahoney has positioned his office as responsible for any matter of public safety, and even of public welfare. The County Board and Executive have played into this, ceding the terms of debate about mental health response and treatment, among many other issues of safety, as matters for the Sheriff – and the anti-democratic Criminal Justice Council – to handle.
While the Dane County Sheriff is quick to complain about the burden of mentally ill and addicted persons in the jail, and has over-run his budget and demanded unprecedented levels of funding for a jail to respond to such mental health crises, the county has almost nothing to show for this investment. That our county exists in such poverty of services while building a lavishly expensive jail is a testament to the Sheriff’s ability to hoard resources and power in exchange for such little service to the community. The county’s languishing capacity for care and safety is the inevitable result of turning over such vast authority to the Sheriff. Jails and prisons do not keep people safe, yet county leadership has let themselves be convinced otherwise. As a result, they are flummoxed by the urgent demands of the community to address issues of safety – in the most expansive definition of the word – other than to continue funding a jail project that is already failing.
The limits of advocacy
The failure of the Doyle Resolution – which revealed the depth of the recalcitrance of the Board of Supervisors over the matter – should signal to organizers that it is time to revisit our strategies towards jail abolition. The Board of Supervisors has made it abundantly clear that they cannot be dissuaded from building the jail and that they view community activists to be powerless to coerce them into stopping the project. While the spirit of Resolution 145 would have moved the County Board in the right direction, the weight of the resolution alone would not have stopped the jail expansion project. Once the Board of Supervisors approved the funding for the project, they ceded much of their legislative power to stop the project from moving forward. The Sheriff’s office can build the jail, and further authorization from the Board is only needed for some procedural matters or if the Sheriff goes over budget and needs more money. Therefore, in effect, Resolution 145 would have only produced a strongly worded, but altogether toothless, letter. With vanishingly few legislative opportunities left, other than hoping to organize a majority of Supervisors to vote against any potential forthcoming construction contracts, organizers can no longer afford to be so narrowly focused on the Board of Supervisors.
By comparison, it is instructive to look at the direct action campaign of Freedom, Inc. that ultimately terminated the Educational Resource Office (ERO) program in Madison’s public schools. Among the many projects of that campaign, organizers turned out hundreds of students and community members – predominantly Black and brown youth – to speak out at and disrupt MMSD Board of Education meetings. It was a strategy premised on developing youth power and it wisely invested in a multitude of tactics.
Early in the campaign, when the MMSD Board of Education was leaning towards continuing the ERO program, organizers were hammering away at an institution that had real power to make the change they needed. Beyond trying to persuade the Board, organizers and activists were raising the cost of continuing the ERO program by taking up more and more of the Board’s time. While this was happening, Freedom, Inc. undertook a massive campaign of education and public consciousness-raising throughout the community. They made cops in schools a central issue that politicians had to address. Crucially, Freedom, Inc.’s campaign problematized the institution and practice of policing, not just the actions of individual police officers. As a result, they helped give rise to new electoral campaigns for Board of Education seats, like those of Ananda Mirilli and Ali Muldrow, who opposed the ERO program. It was a strategy that could coherently continue after the Board of Education renewed the ERO contract, as both the MMSD Board of Education – and ultimately the Madison Common Council – still held the power to cancel the contract, which eventually happened last summer.
The jail is different. For one, it is a vastly larger institution and organ of our government. The ERO program was projected to cost MMSD about $380,000 for 2020. Simply building the jail will cost well over $225 million, enough money to have funded the ERO program for nearly six centuries – which doesn’t even begin to include staffing it, maintaining it, and other associated costs. Beyond the financial scope of the project, the jail plays a different role in the prison industrial complex. Maintaining a jail is a constitutionally mandated duty of county sheriffs in Wisconsin and much of their responsibility is now to the federal prison system, for whom they hold persons transferring between prisons. Additionally, it is no longer clear that the County Board can unilaterally end the jail project, since they authorized the funding for the jail and abdicated most of their power of oversight for the project. Now that the most decisive power to stop the jail expansion rests with Dave Mahoney and his successor, organizers opposing the jail must reckon with this reality.
The organizing we need
What will it take to stop the jail? This is a challenging question that demands examination of further questions. What would it take to stop the county from building a new jail when they’ve already committed to doing so? What kind of organizing would we need to stop the new jail from operating once the county does build it? Organizers would do well to appreciate that no one involved in passing the jail ever felt any real pressure to vote otherwise. Indeed, both County Executive Joe Parisi and Sheriff Mahoney have interpreted their most recent electoral victories – Mahoney’s was uncontested – as mandates for the jail.
Looking back to Freedom, Inc.’s campaign to end the ERO program, it is important to remember that the campaign turned EROs into a must-address issue, indeed one that everyone except Dave Blaska viewed as a problem. While many candidates running for school board may have been reluctant to end the ERO program, opting for reform rather than abolition, candidates in 2018 almost universally viewed the program as a problem. The state of discourse around the jail simply isn’t comparable to that of the ERO program. Candidates for County Board rarely speak of the jail and, if anything is to be viewed as a problem, it is the inhumane conditions of the City/County Jail building, not of the jail as an institution and practice. Any campaign to stop the jail must first make it obvious that the jail itself is a problem. Socialists must be clear, the jail is the malignant heart of racism in Dane County. We cannot stop the jail so long as the liberal illusion that jails can be kind and just continues to persist in the minds of so many in our community.
Stopping the jail will take deep organizing. Such a campaign will require a strategy that includes a variety of different sorts of activism and organizing. First and foremost, the entire county needs to understand the violence of the jail. Voters from Mazomanie to Cambridge need to appreciate that the jail does not rehabilitate – indeed, if it does, no one would know, as the Sheriff publishes no data on jail outcomes. People across Dane County must recognize the part that they are playing in a system that fills a jail with 57% Black people from a county in which only 5.5% of the residents are Black. To raise awareness, organizers must look to new forums and opportunities, notably speaking directly to people, as almost no one pays attention to County Board meetings, much less to the testimony that is happening at these meetings. Organizers must start to build a much larger community movement against the jail.
With greater capacity will come greater opportunities for stopping the jail. Beyond electoralism – such as voting out pro-jail supervisors in favor of abolitionists – organizers must consider ways in which they can directly disrupt the activities of the Sheriff and the county-wide network of law enforcement that throw people in jail. Campaigns to document law enforcement activities, even interrupt them, such as the work of the FreeThe350 bail fund, must grow in scale to the point that the Sheriff’s work is seriously impaired by community activism. Ultimately, the bodies of our community may need to literally throw themselves in front of the construction of the jail in order to get the point across.
The community responsibility for challenging the jail
In a community full of yard signs welcoming immigrants and proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, only a truly delusional observer could ignore the conflict between our community’s conscience and our lived existence. In this case, the idealized version of ourselves, what we believe ourselves to be, is far away from the reality of the life that we lead. As generations of psychotherapists have prescribed, a little – or a lot of – insight could be just the cure for our intolerable symptoms of racial segregation. Dane County must begin to realize that our idealized community is not our realized community and, in doing so, lift ourselves out of a collective apathetic depression that only serves the status quo.
Realizing that one is in an abusive and exploitative relationship is different than dumping the motherfucker, although it often precedes doing so. If our community is to end racial segregation and incarceration, we need become fully aware of how we are participating in it. This will take a campaign of political education far beyond the scope of testimony at County Board meetings. The political leaders of the county are still pushing the narrative that the old jail is bad and a new jail will be less bad, which entirely misses the point. The terms of the debate need to refocus on jailing as a practice and the jail as a public institution, an institution interwoven with the lives of every resident of the county. Organizers must reach directly into the community and have conversations that raise understanding of the Dane County Jail as a system of segregation and oppression, not just as a couple of buildings which might need repair.
Ultimately, this community needs to stop participating in the carceral system. The jail is full of people because someone decided to call the police, more likely than not because there was no safe alternative available to the community. But people in Dane County are clearly calling the police because they are intolerant of people who are homeless, Black, or using drugs. While our community at large must cease cooperation with carceral and punitive systems, it is essential that our mental health and social welfare systems emphatically refuse to participate in such systems. Social workers and therapists call probation officers when they find that a patient has relapsed, just as pedestrians walking down the street call the police about people who are homeless. The problem is that when our systems of welfare and care rely on punishment and segregation, they systematically drive people out of care and into prisons. The county can start funding programs like CAHOOTS and build a non-carceral crisis center, but we also need to grow our capacity as human beings to work with conflict and tolerate difference. Even with a CAHOOTS program available, we still need to stop calling the police on people who are existing while Black.
It will take persistence and compassion to awaken our neighbors to the horror of this jail. Most of all, it will take courage to walk away from the machine we have created and show our friends, our families, our neighbors, our coworkers, and our community that they can do so as well.