In an attempt to bring more humanity to the jail system, negotiations persist on Sheriff Dave Mahoney’s proposed $120 million Dane County Jail project to improve conditions for the incarcerated mentally ill.
A panel of local mental health professionals including Community Treatment Alternatives Program Director Dave Delap, Ron Diamond of UW Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, and Erika Bach of Madison Organizing in Strength Equality and Solidarity, sat with Mahoney last Monday to further evaluate the proposal.
“My desire is that we create a more humane jail,” Mahoney said. “Everyone who has come through the jail comes out at the end of a tour and says, ‘I can’t believe that this exists in the most progressive, forward-thinking county of the United States.’ What I ask you to do is to help me do something about it.”
According to Mahoney, the current state of Dane County’s facilities do not adequately support the demand for mental health services. As of 2014, the county is short 107 mental health treatment spots relative to the incarcerated population, Delap said.
Delap said the county has also failed to adjust treatment slots for those with illnesses based on a 31 percent population increase since 1998, creating a shortage of treatment availabilities.
Mahoney said he envisions a “food court model” of mental health treatment, in which a facility that encompasses all of the different treatment options for the various mental illnesses that inmates may have is created.
The panel agreed with Mahoney on the current jail system being outdated and inefficient, but Bach and others disagreed on the need for new facilities. Bach instead pointed out a need for updated policies and practices in the treatment of those who are mentally ill, suggesting more treatment be done in the community, rather than in-house in the Dane County Jail system.
“While we do fully support the sheriff’s indication that additional programs and resources will become available, we are not in support of the fact that they would need to take place on the top two floors or anywhere in the local jail,” Bach said. “A lot of these resources and services are available and existing in the community.”
Diamond said while a new jail is needed, it may not be the best way to spend the county’s money at the moment. Instead, he called to attention flaws in the jail system itself, saying he would rather see ways to get the right people out of jail and fix racial and socioeconomic disparities.
However, Monica Adams of Freedom, Inc., a non-profit organization that works with low-income communities of color, said there are racial disparities in the jail system that she has been personally impacted by imprisonment practices. She added mental health resources outside of the jail are not as prevalent as Bach said.
“The chief of the matter is the people that would fill those jails are me,” Adams said. “They are my brothers, they are my father, they are my community. Why can’t we put this money and these resources outside of prison, why is it that in order for my brother to receive adequate mental health services, he must be incarcerated?”
Delap said the funding for Dane County’s mental health treatment is part of the problem. According to Delap, the county spent 13 percent lower per capita on mental health than the statewide average.
“The system is working,” Delap said, “but it’s barely working, and if we don’t start providing adequate funding it will cease to work.”