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The Daily
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Idea to use inmate labor at a new Dane County jail facility called a form of 'slavery'
Mahoney: 'What I lose sleep over at night is thinking what if we have a significant incident.'

A report on a new Dane County jail facility includes one proposal for saving taxpayers money: having inmates do their own laundry and make their own food. Currently most laundry is contracted out and county workers provide food service.

That idea troubles some people who called it a form of "slavery" at a meeting of the Dane County Public Protection & Judiciary Committee.

"Now it is true that slavery is permitted under the constitution as a form of punishment, but I don't think that's the right course for Dane County," said Linda Ketcham, executive director of the Madison-Area Urban Ministry, which works on incarceration issues.

Consultants who prepared the report for the Dane County Sheriff's Office presented their findings Tuesday night to county board supervisors and the public.

Ketcham added that she would prefer that inmates be paid the minimum wage, if not the county's living wage, for their work.

Ketcham's comments came after Supv. Leland Pan asked whether inmates would be paid for their work. A member of the consulting team responded that it is more common to take time off an inmate's sentence than to pay him or her.

Neil Rainford, staff representative for AFSCME Council 40, also spoke against the change to inmate labor, noting the county jail system already has a "highly functional" food service program.

"We are steadfastly opposed to eliminating any county positions whose workers have shown dedication," Rainford said.

The more than 600-page report, prepared by two consulting firms -- Mead & Hunt and Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates -- identified two options for revamping the current jail system, both of which are estimated to cost more than $120 million.

One option would be to build a single-level facility no more than 10 miles outside of Madison. The second option would require extensive renovation and expansion to current facilities at the Public Safety Building at 198 W. Doty St. According to the consultants, the first option would likely take three-and-a-half to four years time from design to completion, while the second would take a year longer.

Curtiss Pulitzer of Pulitzer/Bogard said the goal of both options is to create a single facility to maximize efficiency, while also making necessary safety improvements. Insufficient sightlines, for instance, now prevent in some instances the direct supervision of inmates. Providing space for programming is also considered a priority as is finding cost-saving opportunities. The report estimates that converting to on-site laundry and food services would save $1.1 million annually in operating costs.

Safety first

The sixth and seventh floors of the City-County Building at 210 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., function as a medium/maximum security jail. The Public Safety Building houses medium security prisoners and those sentenced to jail with work-release privileges.

The report identifies the City-County facility as a "serious liability" due to poor sightlines and inefficient locking systems that have at times left inmates stuck in cells for three hours, raising concerns over what might happen during an event such as a fire or catastrophic weather.

With either option, contemporary design would be used to ensure the safety of both staff and inmates by allowing direct supervision at all times. Additionally, they would put the jail system in line with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires the housing of youth in a separate location from adults. Currently, the jail system does not have enough space to do so.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said these issues have long been a topic of discussion.

"What I lose sleep over at night is thinking what if we have a significant incident," Mahoney said with regard to the risks at the City-County Building.

Mahoney credits the sheriff's office staff for the lack of serious issues at the location to date.

"But I don't think this is how Dane County thinks these people should be treated," Mahoney added.

Mahoney and others also say that the current facilities are ill-equipped to properly care for inmates with serious medical issues, including mental illness. According to the report, 12-15% of the current population in the Dane County jail has a serious mental illness.

Currently, many inmates with health issues are housed in general population beds. There is also a lack of space to conduct treatment and therapy with proper inmate privacy. Under both options, treatment and therapy services would become a priority.

'Massive' price tag

Most questions from county board supervisors focused on the costs associated with both options. They also wanted to know about any other alternatives.

Supv. Dorothy Krause pointed out that under either plan the county would likely be able to make up some of the costs by repurposing its current facilities at the Ferris Center -- which houses minimum security prisoners with limited work privileges at 2120 Rimrock Road -- and the two floors in the City-County Building.

"It's clear to me we need to do something, we need to make some investment," said Supv. Andrew Schauer.

uKetcham called the price tag for a new facility "massive" and questioned the county's priorities.

"If we're not funding human services but are willing to fund a new jail, what does that say about our county?" she asked.

Carol Rubin, president of Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality and Solidarity, an interfaith organization working on social justice issues, echoed Ketcham. "Why is this our model, that fundamental community services are provided in our jail?" she asked.

Resident Michelle Hicks said she came to testify to provide supervisors with a personal story of dealing with the criminal justice system. Hicks said her daughter, diagnosed with autism, has been ticketed five times for disorderly conduct.

"She doesn't even know what disorderly conduct means," Hicks said, adding that she hopes stories such as hers will help guide the county as it makes decisions about the correctional system.

Dan Turk, a former Sheriff's Office employee who helped plan the Public Safety Building project in the 1990s, agreed with Hicks and had some advice for county supervisors.

"Think carefully. Think about it being your mother or your brother," Turk said. "Think about history and make sure decisions are long-term and not short-term."

Supv. Maureen McCarville expressed optimism that all would be sorted out. "Everybody has the best intentions," she said. "I just hope we can pull it all together."

Mahoney said the report will be discussed at future meetings.

"We have a lot of decisions ahead of us," he said. "One of them is asking what's the price Dane County citizens put on how we treat members of our community."

[Editor's note: The spelling of Linda Ketcham is corrected in this story.]

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