In an effort to prioritize inmate health and safety, a Dane County supervisor proposed a $4.4 million plan to make the county jail a safer place to live in.
The plan, which Supervisor Paul Rusk, District 12, proposed Sept. 17, is a stop-gap measure to address some of the problems inmates and officers face at the City County Jail building. These problems are so risky that they make the jail a dangerous and uninhabitable place.
“You really don’t have to go to San Francisco and see Alcatraz when you can just go up to the sixth and seventh floors,” Rusk said.
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More than 80 suicides have been attempted on these two floors of the City County Building because of poor and risky living conditions, Rusk said. To make their accommodations more comfortable, Rusk said the plan includes removing bars and adding doors with windows instead. Moreover, the doors will have better locks so inmates can be evacuated quickly in an emergency.
Supervisor Hayley Young, District 5, said the plan will not remodel or restructure the whole jail but add necessary fixes to address potential loss of life. She said despite the high costs the plan is important and should be evaluated. The plan has faced little opposition and even seen support from the wider community because it addresses security risks to inmates and officers at the jail.
“This is something that’s a closer to an emergency or a Band-Aid [solution],” Young said. “We have to do something about this right now.”
Currently, inmates and officers on the sixth and seventh floors do not have access to clean drinking water, Rusk said. The pipes have high levels of lead in them so inmates cannot use hot water and have to wait for cold water to run before using it. They do not know how much of the piping needs to be replaced but the plan includes working on fixing them.
Fire is also a “huge concern” for the sixth and seventh floors, Rusk said. The plan includes fixing passageways and making windows easier to open in case there is a fire.
Though the plan is temporary, Rusk said it will buy time to find more permanent solutions to other issues like solitary confinement. Currently, inmates with mental health problems are put into solitary confinement, which Rusk said is “outrageous.” The current plan keeps solitary confinement in place but future plans will replace it with a better solution.
Other long-term solutions include possible remodeling of the jail building as a whole, Rusk said. The sixth and seventh floors will be turned into offices and the jail will have a more modern layout.
Young said future plans could also address racial barriers in criminal justice through comprehensive reform. She said the Dane County Board is discussing these matters but has not concretely decided on anything yet.
Funds for the repairs are coming from capital money, which comes from bonds Dane County issues for projects. The Dane County Board borrows this money like a loan, Rusk said.
Other costs within the project include those to temporarily relocate inmates to another facility while the repairs take place. Rusk said this is not good for the inmates because they should be close to their families but there are no other options and the Dane County Board has to act fast.
“We have to be responsible and bite the bullet to address the health and safety issues as best as we can,” Rusk said.
The Public Protection and Judiciary committee and the Personnel and Finance Committee unanimously passed the plan on Sept. 20 and 26 respectively. The Dane County Board will review the plan in upcoming weeks, Young said. Construction is expected to begin around May 2017.