‘Inhumane, borderline unconstitutional’: Dane Co. Sheriff weighs pricy alternative as new jail plans creep forward

Sheriff Kalvin Barrett says waiting on jail consolidation project for 5 years since a study found high risk at CCB jail doesn't represent the "due haste" the study called for

MADISON, Wis. — The Dane County Sheriff is weighing pricy, temporary housing alternatives for jail residents as a $23 million increase threatens to stall the long-debated, long-postponed jail consolidation project once again.

Sheriff Kalvin Barrett says he’s been studying research and data solutions for the first several months of his tenure, and is now ready to start publicly weighing alternatives to a problem that, according to a county-commissioned study, has long been a risk to “liability and impact on human lives.”

Dane County is now just shy of the five-year anniversary in December since the publishing of the Dane County Jail Update Study, which found that the county needed to work toward getting residents out of the outdated 1950s City-County Building and into an updated facility with “due haste”.

“Five years is not, in my opinion, due haste when it comes to closing a building that we all agree is inhumane and not safe,” Barrett said in an interview on Monday.

The Dane County Jail is currently divided between three facilities, with space on the sixth and seventh floors of the CCB for about 365 medium and maximum security residents. The county has already set aside $148 million for a modern facility that would consolidate all three into one facility that reduces beds from 1,013 to 922.

The top two floors of the CCB are filled with outdated cell blocks that both Barrett and his predecessor Sheriff Dave Mahoney described as unsafe and inhumane. Solitary confinement cells have been used as sick isolation units during the pandemic due to a lack of medical housing, and the facility doesn’t have the ability to support other medical or mental health improvements.

“Deviations and delays continue to threaten the life of those living, working, and volunteering within our CCB,” Barret said on Monday.

County split on support

This Wednesday, the county’s Personnel & Finance Committee is set to consider an additional $23 million to the already-approved $148 million as budget cycle talks continue.

The added costs are entirely due to the pandemic increasing construction and other expenses, according to the independent contractors hired by the county to provide project guidance. Last month, the group said the project would either need a $23 million increase or cutting the top two floors of the new facility.

If the proposal makes it out of the finance committee, it will be forwarded on for debate at the full county board as part of this year’s budget talks.

Last week, the Public Protection and Judiciary Committee narrowly passed the amendment on a 4-3 vote, with supervisors voting against it saying they needed more information about what went into the cost increase. Supervisor Richelle Andrae said she also wanted to see more work done first looking at ways to reduce the jail population overall.

“If someone can tell me that we have been down that road as far as we can, and pushed every lever in the next few months and this is the only thing we can do and we gotta just build it and there’s not going to be a reduction in the total numbers, I’m on board,” she said in the meeting. “But I’m not convinced at this point that we have used all the levers in the system.”

For other supervisors, there needed to be more information behind the $23 million increase.

“We need to complete the jail consolidation project,” Alex Joers, who also voted against the proposal, told News 3 in an email. “However, the amendment discussed last week was brought prematurely. The dollar amount provided does not come with the full information we, as elected officials, require to make responsible and accurate decisions nor does it facilitate any movement on the project.”

Temporary alternatives: A hefty price tag

Among the solutions that Sheriff Barrett is considering is temporarily housing CCB residents in surrounding county jails. But that would come with a $13.3 million price tag a year, he said, when calculated on an average of $100 in housing for 365 people (the capacity of the CCB jail floors) per day.

But that estimate does not even reflect additional costs of transportation, mileage, labor and overtime, Barrett said. Additionally, the department would have to make budget room for an additional full time “Shipping Coordinator” position just to coordinate the transports.

Plus, paying for the labor and overtime costs of either deputies or a third-party contractor doing the transfers would be massive.

“That is money that is going to be on the burden of us as taxpayers to pay,” Barrett said. “That money has no return back to us.”

While the expensive solution would alleviate the inhumane conditions for people currently at the CCB, it still wouldn’t align with the ten inmate housing goals that the county board agreed to years ago. Neither would it keep residents in close proximity to families, or necessarily meet the standards that Dane County wants to adhere to for housing and programming for its incarcerated population.

“If they’re in different counties, now they’re further away from their support systems which can lead to a higher recidivism rate,” Barret said. “When we’re looking at how much it costs, it really comes down to: What price do we put on humanity?”

A spokesperson for the DCSO said the sheriff would not need the county board’s approval to house residents out of the county in order to move people out of the CCB. Currently, Barrett says it is an alternative he is considering, and does not know yet what would trigger use of the plan.

He points to a 2008 study by John Wozniak, “Poverty and Peacemaking Criminology: Beyond Mainstream Criminology”, as supportive data for the position that inhumane jail conditions increase crime rates and recidivism.

The jail population has crept upwards from a low point of about 500 last year during the pandemic. Monday, there were 648 total residents.

“I’m not here to build a shiny new building simply to build a new building,” he said. “I am here because what we have is inhumane and borderline unconstitutional.”

Photojournalist Lance Heidt contributed to this report.