‘That jail is like a setup’: One man’s experience in the oldest part of the Dane County Jail

MADISON, Wis. — In March, Garrett Olson had just moved into his own apartment after being homeless for the last four years when he was arrested after a fight. He was booked into the oldest part of the Dane County Jail, where he would spend the next four months.

Just weeks after his release, Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett announced that he would be closing that part of the jail due to what he has repeatedly called “unsafe, inhumane and borderline unconstitutional” conditions.

RELATED: Dane Co. Sheriff’s Office to close portion of jail, move residents to other counties

A tough upbringing and battles with addiction and mental health mean Olson has seen the worst of the criminal justice system.

“I went in and out of jail constantly in Dane County, and it was because of my mental health and because of my addictions,” he said.

He knows firsthand what Barrett and others have been saying for years: the conditions in the Dane County Jail are awful.

“It’s a big mess. That place should have been closed down years ago,” said Olson. “Paint chips all over the place, rusted things. The bottom of the walls were all deteriorated, rusted. (There is) a lot of damage from chemicals.”

He said the jail was unsanitary and difficult to live in.

“They had these little gnats and these little flies,” Olson said “Lots of silverfish. I would wake up in the morning time and my neck would be bit up. Spiders — lots of spiders that were poisonous. Recluse. Very small spiders.”

As for food and water, it wasn’t good either.

“The water was just disgusting. It tasted like metals,” he said. “The meals there were disgusting. I was hungry all the time. All the time.”

Olson said poor access to mental and physical health care made life harder as well. At one point, Olson spent 60 days in isolation both as a result of overcrowding and as punishment.

In the four months that he was there, Olson was only let outside one time on the empty roof of the building.

“My mental health was getting worse and worse and worse. It was tough,” he said.

On one occasion, Olson said he had a piece of tissue stuck in his ear for three days before he could get medical help.

“I had to put them in because I had another guy that they put in there, that they transferred in, he had ADHD so bad that he would slam things on the wall and punch the wall and make noise. And of course, you know, I understood, but I tried to stuff toilet paper in my ears because I couldn’t order earplugs,” he explained.

Small cells and tight quarters led to tension and conflict, both among residents and between residents and guards. 

“I’ve almost gotten in altercations with staff there,” Olson said. “That jail is like a setup. You’re going to fail one way or another.”

RELATED: Dane County executive, sheriff propose public referendum on jail consolidation project costs

Olson said he felt the guards didn’t know enough about the residents as individuals, which often led to bad situations.

“Our behaviors in that environment don’t represent who we are,” he said. “I think the jail staff really need to have an understanding of the mental health of each individual that is there. They should know each one of them and know why they act the way they’re acting.”

Olson credits his support on the outside with keeping him grounded while he was in the jail.

“If it wasn’t for being able to have a line of communication with people outside, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with my emotions,” he said. “I don’t know what would have happened. I think I would have gone further into despair.”

RELATED: Dane County Board of Supervisors Black Caucus unveils new plan for Jail Consolidation Project

Ultimately, Olson is glad that part of the jail is closed, but he thinks there’s still work to be done. He’s been working as an activist with the Madison Wisconsin Homeless Union and hopes to be a peer support specialist in the future.

As of 11 a.m. Thursday, all residents have been moved out of the oldest part of the jail where Olson was. They are being housed in Rock, Iowa and Oneida counties at a cost Barrett expects will cost the county $500,000 for the rest of 2022.

For now, the Jail Consolidation Project is still stalled, but county officials are hoping they’ll be able to get the ball rolling on a new facility soon.

In a statement to News 3 Now Thursday, Barrett said the oldest part of the jail was closed as of late Thursday morning.

The full statement reads:

“Many of the concerns expressed by Mr. Olson about the conditions in the City-County Building jail are heard and substantiated. As of approximately 11:00 am today, the oldest part of the Dane County Jail was officially closed due to the unacceptable and unsafe conditions. Moving people out of our jail to other counties was not an easy choice, but it was the right choice. I have been working toward replacing the City-County Building Jail since I took office, as did my predecessor.

“We arguably have high quality medical and mental health care available 24/7 in our jail, but lack the appropriate space for individuals experiencing physical or mental illness. Dane County is far overdue in moving forward on the jail consolidation project and a jail that meets the needs of the community.”