The Badger Herald recently published a column attacking Dane County’s decision to remodel their current jail facility. The column argues the new jail will contribute to an already flawed criminal justice system, worsening racial inequality and have no effect on the re-incarceration rate. These claims aren’t true and fail to take into account the current state of the jail.
And that state is atrocious. The sheriff’s office, which runs the facility, has made it abundantly clear that the jail is a danger to both inmates and staff. Recent incidents of malfunctioning doors ended without any injuries, but the problems require a long-term solution before anyone gets hurt.
Given structural constraints, solitary confinement is common. This is disastrous for inmates’ mental and physical health and makes it harder to assimilate back into the community upon release. The sheriff has made it clear that he would vastly prefer eliminating solitary confinement. Unfortunately, this decision is impossible at the current facility. Opponents of remodeling characterize it as simply repainting the walls, but this rhetoric trivializes the very real effects of eliminating solitary confinement.
At least eight inmates attempted suicide in recent months, highlighting the jail’s poor mental health resources. Jails are not prisons. They’re usually not intended to house inmates for more than a year, and they frequently don’t provide the same level of support as prisons.
However, the new jail will include spaces specifically designed for inmates with special mental and physical health needs. Furthermore, it will include spaces for programs designed to help, not simply punish, inmates. These are positive changes in a justice system which can be draconian — they will likely lower the recidivism rate and should be applauded.
The county is spending $76 million to improve the living and working conditions in the jail while lowering the jail’s capacity by 91 beds. The increase in funds isn’t so the county can incarcerate more people. It’s a huge commitment to providing a necessary service in the most humane way possible. The county’s budget also includes expansions for mental health services, something critics of the jail identify as a factor in keeping people out of the criminal justice system.
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However, simply increasing funds for mental health services won’t improve the conditions in the current jail. Dane County approved the new facility in order to eliminate the dehumanizing conditions which plague the current jail, a goal which everybody should share.
Critics of the jail say it will further racial injustice in Wisconsin, pointing to the disproportionate percent of African-American men in Wisconsin prisons. This is a problem which Wisconsin needs to deal with, but continuing to house inmates in inhumane conditions isn’t the answer. Remodeling the jail system should be part of larger reforms, but incarcerating people safely is an important step.
The new jail is about improving the working and living conditions of its staff and inmates. If opponents succeeded, the immediate result would just be the continuation of the status quo. This shouldn’t be a contentious issue. Everyone wants humane jails and strong communities.
Will Maher ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in history and international studies.