Will the new jail be less safe as well as smaller? 

Part #2: a missed opportunity?

Dane County’s Public Safety Building was always a compromise. Now, 25 years after it was designed, county officials are preparing to bake another half a loaf at a cost of $76 million. A jail with smaller inmate capacity and “challenges” to prevent Huber Act work-release prisoners from bringing contraband into the consolidated jail.

The county’s jail consultants originally proposed a more grandiose — and expensive — plan. When the county balked (understandably), consultants Mead & Hunt proposed a third option, to be built in three phases. The first phase adds four floors (4½ counting the build-out of the roof penthouse) to replace the antiquated jail space atop the City County Building next door and the Ferris work-release inmate center on Rimrock Road. (See Part #1: Less is more?)

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The Ferris (Huber Law) work-release center on Rimrock Road

Even so, the build-up will REDUCE jail capacity by 91 beds — from 1,013 to 922. But modern jails today are more than rows of cells out of a Jimmy Cagney movie. They are oriented around community pods. And they are service-oriented. The proposed new jail will be something of a mental health hospital as well as an occupational training center. Something like the accompanying photo.

So consultants proposed two follow-up phases: the first to swap out the first three floors of the Public Safety Building (PSB) for more jail and treatment space, which would increase inmate capacity by 28; the second to build a new home for the sheriff’s department and emergency operations. That would cost another $38 million to bring the total cost of the project to $108 million.

But that may never happen.


Only the $76 million first phase is included in the county’s 2018 capital budget, which gets a public hearing beginning 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 18, in County Board chambers, Room 201 of the City County Building on Martin Luther King Drive.


The proposed new county jail would hold 9% fewer inmates

Mike Willett

Mike Willett

Supervisor Mike Willett of Verona is one of the few moderate/conservatives serving Dane County. He serves on its Public Protection & Judiciary Committee (PP&J), which has been planning the jail. Willett tells us, “The PP&J recommendation specifically REMOVED [my] recommendation for anything after Phase 1. There is no intention of every doing it.

Instead, in July, the committee adopted the motion of Supv. Carousel Bayrd, one of the most liberal members of the county board. From the get-go, the county board refused to add inmate capacity for a growing county. Its jail consultants, Mead & Hunt, recorded the limitation:

No new beds should be added to the system, as recommended by the County Board.

Now the board would assure that the new jail not only would be no larger, but that it be smaller — by 9% fewer inmates. In the fastest-growing county (by gross population) in the state! Willett tells the Stately Manor:

Building these four floors onto the existing jail building is a very needed first step in making our jails safe for those folk that we are required to house. This first phase should make us compliant with the federal standards. This will greatly reduce the use of solitary confinement cells.

However, stopping at phase one is an error. The board must look further into the future.  We are about to vote to build a jail that houses 91 fewer inmates, costs over $500,000 a year more to operate, and introduces the chances of contrabands into the jail. For the safety of the inmates and the employees there we should finish this jail project by completing all the recommendations.

Indeed, county jail consultants Mead & Hunt warn:

There will be a deficit of beds for male general population and male Huber [work release] inmates, which [the deficit of beds] is eliminated in Phase 2. During Phase 1, jail staff will be challenged to keep male Huber [work-release] inmates from being housed with other inmates, thereby increasing the risk that contraband will be conveyed into the facility.

Ignoring the lessons of history

Outside of PSBYour Humble Bloggeur attended the dedication ceremony for the four-story PSB when it was completed in 1994. In addition to housing the sheriff’s department, it provided much needed jail space. But it did not replace the original jail on the 6th and 7th floors of the City County Building next door. Built in 1954, the original jail was already outdated.

The 1992 County Board, chaired by brother Mike Blaska, wanted to build an additional four floors. Rick Phelps, then the county executive and good liberal that he was, vetoed out the four extra floors, which would have been only a shell to accommodate future growth. (Ironically, the elevator still shows those phantom floors.)

At the dedication in 1994, Phelps gave one of the worst speeches the Squire, then newly elected to the County Board, has heard this side of Jimmy Carter. With Sheriff Rick Raemisch standing alongside, Phelps whined how the jail represented some societal “failure.”

Mead & Hunt reports:

In 1992, the cost for shelling out the 4 floors was about $6 million. That cost seems minor compared to what it will cost now to complete a similar addition. If one had known then what is known now about escalation, inflation, and the space needs required, the decision might well have been different.

Oh, some of us knew but we lacked the votes to override Phelps.

Supv. Dave Ripp, a moderate and the board’s most-tenured member, remembers, “The need for the four extra stories was so obvious that the concrete anchors for the tower crane were left in place and are under the parking lot ready to be used on the addition.”

Read through the full Mead & Hunt jail recommendation (if you’re ambitious).

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About David Blaska

Madison WI
This entry was posted in Crime and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Will the new jail be less safe as well as smaller? 

  1. Pingback: No money for more Madison police but plenty for Common Council staff | Stately Blaska Manor

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