Dane County Jail could be renovated for $75 million, half of previous cost, consultants say

Dane County Jail could be renovated for $75 million, half of previous cost, consultants say

Wisconsin State Journal's David Wahlberg reports.

A scaled-down version of a long-awaited renovation of the Dane County Jail could be done for $75.2 million, less than half the cost of more comprehensive proposals released in December, consultants said Friday.

The new plan forgoes some space for programming, youth inmate housing and in-person visitation in the previous plans — which cost $152.1 million to $164.5 million — and puts a Sheriff’s Office relocation at a separate cost of $23.9 million.

But the trimmed plan includes what officials have said is the main reason for revamping the jail — replacing jail space on the upper floors of the City-County Building, one of three jail locations. The facility, built in the 1950s, is unsafe and inhumane, requiring many inmates with mental illness to be kept in solitary confinement, according to Sheriff Dave Mahoney.

The new plan “addresses a number of my concerns with earlier proposals,” County Executive Joe Parisi said in a statement. “It’s half the original estimated price tag, allows for more mental health treatment and programming space (than exists today), eliminates solitary confinement and reduces the number of jail beds, making it easier to address the root causes of why people end up in jail in the first place.”

Dane County Supervisor Paul Rusk, chairman of the County Board’s public protection and judiciary committee, said he hopes the plan leads to approval this year and the beginning of construction next year. His committee will discuss it Tuesday, with the full County Board to review it Thursday. Action isn’t expected until later.

A jail renovation, discussed for more than a decade, has involved $2 million in studies, Rusk said.

“We need to have a path forward now or something terrible is going to happen up there (in the City-County Building) and the loss of life and the lawsuits that come after that is a phenomenal risk to the county,” he said.

Call for crisis center

Mental health advocates, who agree with the plan to replace the City-County Building portion of the jail, say, however, that the proposed project doesn’t go far enough in preventing people with mental illness from landing in jail. They’re calling for a separate center where police could bring people with mental health crises day or night, saying it could be paid for by scaling back the jail’s capacity.

“What we strongly disagree on is the need to plan for as many inmates in the jail as our current system incarcerates and using the jail as a de-facto psychiatric unit,” Lindsay Wallace, executive director of NAMI Dane County, told Rusk’s committee this week.

The new plan calls for 922 beds, 91 fewer than exist today and down from 944 beds in the main proposal from December. But Wallace noted that the average daily population of the jail, according to the consultants, is 757. That includes some people with mental illness who shouldn’t be there, she said.

In a report Friday, consultants Mead and Hunt, who are working with Potter Lawson and Pulitzer/Bogard and Associates, outlined a pruned-down version of the least expensive of two jail remodeling options they proposed in December.

The new plan, like both of the earlier ones, would consolidate jail operations at the Public Safety Building in Downtown Madison by closing the nearby City-County Building jail and the Ferris Center for work-release inmates on Rimrock Road.

Like one of the earlier options, which cost $152.1 million, the new plan would add four floors to the Public Safety Building. But it wouldn’t expand into a parking lot as the costlier proposal did.

The second previous option, which cost $164.5 million, appears to be off the table. It would build an addition to the Public Safety Building on two adjacent properties.

$75.2 million plan

The $75.2 million plan would provide more programming and mental health treatment space than currently exists, but less than under the costlier proposals, Rusk said.

It would include space for youth inmates from Dane County but not additional space for youth inmates from elsewhere, and it would replace in-person visitation space with at-home visitation through Skype-like technology.

By reducing total beds by 9 percent, in a county with a growing population, the plan would encourage the continuation of reforms to divert people from jail, Rusk said. However, if more beds were needed, the Sheriff’s Office could be moved out of the Public Safely Building as part of an additional $23.9 million project.

A group called MOSES — Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality and Solidarity — is calling for a mental health urgent care center, sometimes called a restoration center, to keep people with mental health crises who commit minor offenses out of jail.

“Individuals can be assessed, stabilized and immediately connected to community services” in such a center, said Paul Saeman, a member of the group.

Kathleen Fullin, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Dane County, said, “If we don’t spend time and resources on approaches that offer a chance to save money and better serve our citizens, we will surely spend extra millions of dollars building extra cells and incarcerating people who should be getting treatment instead.”

Rusk said restoration centers, found in some other states, are costly and not always secure, which can raise liability concerns.