An Update on the Discussion Surrounding the Dane County Jail

By Lindsay Wallace, Executive Director

In 2015, Mead and Hunt, a consultant firm hired by the Dane County Board of Supervisors, recommended that Dane County build a new jail estimated to cost $135 - $141 million. In partnership with MOSES and other stakeholders, NAMI Dane County held a public forum about the jail study. We rejected the proposal because we believe that more resources need to be invested in alternatives to incarceration for people with serious mental illnesses. Alternatives to incarceration prevent people with serious mental illnesses from being booked into the jail in the first place and instead give them access to secure community-based mental health services that are better equipped to respond to their needs.

In our advocacy efforts, we also noted that many people with mental illnesses are in jail unnecessarily - meaning that they are not a risk to the public and are in jail because they are waiting for a court or DOC hearing, or cannot pay fines or bail (often $500 or less). NAMI Dane County celebrated an advocacy win along with our community partners when the County Executive removed the jail proposal from the budget.

When the jail proposal was removed from the budget, the Public Protection & Judiciary (PP&J) committee asked Mead and Hunt to identify other options for improving the jail that did not require the construction of a new building. Based on these recommendations, Mead and Hunt released their third jail proposal update. Included in this latest proposal were options for using existing facilities over building a new jail. One of these options includes adding four floors to the existing Public Safety Building and designating one of those floors for people with serious persistent mental illnesses.

Mead and Hunt estimate that the cost for implementing this proposal is between $146 - $161 million. This does not include other construction costs, including the remodeling of the City-County Building into administrative offices nor does it take into account yearly costs to maintain the facility. We also note that the proposal includes adding 186 more beds to the jail. While NAMI Dane County agrees the jail needs to be updated to protect the safety of the staff and inmates, we oppose adding new beds for the same reasons we rejected the construction of a new jail.

Instead of adding more beds, Dane County should look to other communities who have found success in implementing alternatives to incarceration and invest in similar programs. For example, San Antonio built a restoration center and saved $50 million over five years. They also saw a reduction in hospital emergency room use, leading to $40 million in savings. Overall, they found that for every $1 spent on treatment, alternatives, and diversions, they saved $1.96.

Milwaukee has also seen success in the implementation of their Criminal Justice Day Resource Center as an alternative to jail. They saw better outcomes at 10 to 20% the cost of sending the person to jail. Waukesha County also implemented a Day Report Center and reported avoiding 16,000 jail days.

These successes provide hope that with implementation of evidence-based practices and investment in alternatives to incarceration that we can successfully reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail and simultaneously improve jail conditions for those inside. Any facility changes that move forward should promote these goals and we’ll be working closely with our community partners to ensure those goals are realized.

We welcome your involvement in this important initiative. You can join our Advocacy Committee, which meets the 2nd Monday of every month from 5:30 - 7:00pm at the NAMI Dane County office. You can also write your Dane County Board Supervisor or attend the Public Protection & Judiciary committee meetings that take place each month at 5:15pm in room 201 of the City-County Building. PP&J meetings are posted on the Dane County Government calendar at