Study recommends closing oldest part of Dane County Jail ‘with due haste’

By Cadence Bambenek and Jeff Glaze | May 13, 2016

A newly released consultants’ report recommends that county officials move toward closing the oldest parts of Dane County Jail “with due haste.”

The preliminary report from consultants Mead and Hunt, Potter Lawson, and Pulitzer/Bogard and Associates, which was published Friday ahead of Tuesday’s Public Protection and Judiciary Committee meeting, could lead to planning for an alternative jail.

It estimated that it would cost more than $47 million to bring parts of the jail on the City-County Building’s sixth and seventh floors up to current building code, safety standards and supervision requirements, with at least $16.5 million in recurring annual costs.

It also warned that officials “should be extremely cautious” in considering continued long-term use of that part of the jail, which was opened in 1954.

“1954 — that’s Alcatraz era,” Public Protection and Judiciary Committee chairman Paul Rusk said. “It’s the same layout as it was in 1954, so it’s an extremely inefficient layout.”

The Dane County Jail is housed across three buildings: the Downtown Public Safety Building and City-County Building, which are connected by a tunnel under South Carroll Street, and the work-release Ferris Center on the city’s South Side.

The consultants’ report dealt only with the City-County Building portion.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said he felt affirmed by the report.

“This report adds credibility to what we have been saying for over 10 years on the condition of the jail and potential liability to both the county leaders as well as the taxpayers,” Mahoney said.

“Experts in the field — they’re engineers, they’re architects — they’ve looked at the entire infrastructure of the building and they have now come back with the conclusion that it should be abandoned.”

In order to continue operation of the City-County Building, the report called for replacement of the jail cell bar fronts, which can serve as anchors for suicide attempts, and it found many of the building’s systems are outdated and in need of continuous repair due to age. Repairs are difficult since many of the parts, such as the original door hardware, are hard to find or require manufacturing because they are obsolete.

The consultants also assessed the facility’s compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and found the current layout and staffing offer inmates only intermittent and indirect supervision, making it impossible for the facility to meet PREA recommendations. Failure to comply with state and federal regulations leaves the county open to potential liability, the report states.

Of the 338 cells in the City-County Building, the report found that 117 do not meet the current state Department of Corrections standard of 35 square feet of unencumbered floor space. Standards also require inmates to be within a maximum distance from an escape exit in the case of an emergency. The report found 48 of the jail’s cells currently exceed that maximum distance.

Rusk emphasized the portion of the study released Friday is just the first part of the process to identify a solution for the problems with the jail’s facilities.

The Public Protection and Judiciary Committee will hear a presentation and discuss the study at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday in Room 257 of the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Rusk said the committee will then vote, either at that meeting or the following week, on whether to pursue remodeling the facilities in the City-County Building. He said he believes that is unlikely given the high renovation costs outlined in the report.

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to say ‘don’t go forward there, give us some better options that have long-term usefulness to the county,’” Rusk said.

If the committee opts not to proceed with renovations in the City-County Building, the consultants will develop an alternative proposal that would likely integrate the facilities in the City-County Building into the Public Safety Building, he said.

Rusk said he hopes the study’s findings lead to improved efficiency by consolidating the two facilities.

Conversations about how to address jail safety have been ongoing for several years.

In 2014, Mahoney lobbied County Board members to consider building a jail, citing numerous safety problems and concerns with the existing facility. But with an estimated cost of $150 million, the proposal was struck from County Executive Joe Parisi’s 2015 capital budget.

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