A proposal to spend $76 million on a new jail facility in Madison drew criticism last week during public hearings before the Dane County Board of Supervisors. A multitude of Madison residents spoke at a County Board meeting to rail against what a number of people referred to as the building of cages and the criminalization of people in poverty or suffering from mental health issues.
Linda Ketcham of Madison Urban Ministries spoke at length about the messages being sent to the community by spending millions of dollars to build what she described as cages for human beings.
Madison Urban Ministries works with and employs a multitude of people who have been previously incarcerated and have re-entered the community to find that their problems are often only just beginning. Lack of community resources, long waiting lists for drug and alcohol or mental health treatment and job applications on which ex-inmates are forced to reveal they were incarcerated all contribute to the revolving door of the Dane County Jail.
“I think this proposal says a few things,” Ketcham told Madison365. “One is that if we were investing more significantly into human services as a safety net, into drug and alcohol treatment, and affordable housing, we wouldn’t be seeing this proposal or the jail numbers. I don’t think this reflects on the Sheriff. He’s charged with operating the jail and he wants them to be safe and that’s an honorable goal and I have no argument with the Sheriff. But because our human services safety net has frayed and the County is spending less in that area than they did ten and twenty years ago, it puts the Sheriff in a hard space. They haven’t supported the safety net.”
Ketcham says just building a new jail does not address the overall jail population, racial disparities or the idea that poverty is increasingly criminalized in her opinion by the city through various ticketing policies and sparse resources for impoverished or homeless families. She said a new jail does nothing to address the idea of keeping people out of jail in the first place.
“We have no confidence that the jail population in five to ten years will be reduced,” she said. “We’re still going to have the same disparities because we’re not investing in the solution. It’s like a band-aid and the band-aid is for the people who say they’re safer because we’ve put more people in jail. The County does fund treatment but almost everyone we work with is put on a long, long waiting list. Maybe they can hold on long enough to get in. But more often than not they end up having relapse issues because of the long wait and end up being revoked and back in the jail.
Ketcham said it’s an illusion to say we have programming in the community for people as an alternative to incarceration. She said the reality is that the system blames people for having addiction issues or mental illness.
“For us it’s just frustrating because every day we see people not being able to access what they need,” Ketcham said. “Building a new jail isn’t going to help them. Building a community-based facility for people experiencing a mental health crisis is what’s needed. The Sheriff shouldn’t be handling mental health issues. But that’s what we’ve done.”
Ketcham is referring to the proposed new jail that would have separate sections for inmates experiencing mental health difficulties. The proposed new jail would also have separate quarters for inmates under the age of 18, a major departure from the past few decades when inmates as young as 16 years old have shared cells and quarters with adult sex offenders and other violent adult perpetrators.
As a community activist, Ketcham wants the County Board to show the political will to reform how they organize the budget and raise new monies that could be used to build facilities and have staff to help people with what they’re really struggling with rather than criminalizing everything.
“The County Board has lacked the political courage to go to referendum to increase the levy to fund more human services,” she said. “They have lacked the will to let the providers reinvest any of the surplus that they have into new equipment or staff training and over the years we’re talking about the same amount they’re proposing for this jail. We’d like to see the county, if they vote to borrow this $76 million, let’s hear them make a commitment to $76 million in new funding to generate new dollars into human services.”
But Sharon Corrigan, the Dane County Board Chair, says that while she is completely supportive of alternatives to incarceration, the new jail must be built.
Corrigan said that we can do everything possible to build diversion programs, more mental health resources and a larger base of community care centers. But someone, somewhere, sometime is going to be arrested and go to jail. And Corrigan says that people deserve to be housed in a facility far beyond the conditions of the old Public Safety Building as it is currently constructed
“I don’t differ from Linda in her desire to see affordable housing and alternatives to incarceration,” Corrigan told Madison365. “But at the same time I recognize we have a responsibility to have a jail. Right now it is in the most deplorable condition. It’s old, antiquated and unsafe. We house over 300 people in conditions that are deplorable. People often go into the jail needing to be separated for mental health issues and they end up having to be housed in segregation, which is not appropriate. There’s going to be people in jail with mental health needs no matter what we do and we need to be able to accomodate them.”
Corrigan said that the capacity for the new facility will be less than the capacity for the old jail and will thereby force everyone to work harder on diversion programs. She said that the District Attorney’s office and many judges are already working on more alternative to incarceration programs and deferred prosecutions.
But doing that doesn’t negate the fact that there are people housed in the jail and Corrigan says we must change their everyday living conditions. “This proposal is to create a smaller, safer jail,” she said. “Safer for the people who live there and the people who work there. But I’m not willing to sit by and wait for one of the people who attempt suicide in that jail to be successful.
On Thursday, a 26-year-old inmate attempted suicide while being detained in one of the most decrepit areas of the old jail. But, like many of the jail’s inmate population, he was in jail on a probation hold, not a new crime
The incident proves the points of both Corrigan and Ketcham simultaneously. On one hand, yes, having that inmate be in a better physical space where he can be supervised by a trained staff in a mental health block would be much, much better.
But, as Ketcham knows, the overcrowding in the jail is not the result of some titanic wave of crime. The inmate was there because of a probation hold because community corrections uses the jail as their own warehouse because they have no in-community alternatives.
Corrigan, though, is resolute that this will be done
“I can’t relive ancient history of how budgets were done,” she said. “There’s some saying we should use the jail money to be spent on operations offering services. It would be nice if we could spend dollars any way we want but we can’t and are limited on what we can spend on levy for operating services. We can use money to build a building but we can’t increase people who do counseling for homeless with that same money. With those dollars, you can’t just say let’s do something else with it. Last year we worked with judges about sentencing people to community service. A number of judges came together with the idea of having a community service option. They’re just getting that up and running now. It’s part of the budget for this upcoming year.”
Corrigan says the 2018 budget is a particularly difficult one.
“I understand why there’s questions about an expense to have a new jail because we do have disproportionate minority incarceration. We have to continue pushing forward on that issue. But failing to address the human needs of the people we are required by law to house won’t stem that tide and we need to address those needs.”