Wrong County Jail Rulings Do a Disservice to the Public – Tone Madison

Dismantling is difficult. Making the same mistakes is easy.

Illustrative: A dotted purple cube opens and a series of smaller purple cubes break out of it, in a photo of the 2020 protests near the downtown Madison Jail, with the street and sidewalks full of people . A sign reads “EXIT”. Illustration by Dan Fitch, photo by Oona Mackesey-Green.

capital time editor Paul Fanlund recently wrote about the chaos of the ongoing Dane County Jail project, deploring the fact that his Chronicle 2019 arguing that a “smaller and more secure Dane County Jail is within reach” proved to be untrue. But this is not very false: we could having a smaller Dane County Jail without spending millions, and it might be safer for our community. We just need to close the Dangerous City-County Building (CCB) floors of correctional facilities in downtown Madison and are working to keep fewer people in jail. Even experts like James Austin of JFA (a Dane County consultant paid to help guide the new prison consolidation) let’s say it’s quite possible halve our prison population. But it takes hard work and careful thought.

Fanlund says this issue “divides Dane County’s traditional left against its increasingly influential far left.” But these oft-repeated claims that the “far left” is “increasingly influential” in Madison actually have no basis. There are, at most, two county council supervisors who could be called ‘far left’. If “the far left” had this supposed influence and power over the county council, the 2020 resolution calling for the jail project to be stopped would have passed, and this debate would have been settled long ago, with the county being free to invest the money. in addictions care, mental health programs and housing.

What is really happening is a symptom of the difficulty in dismantling or even reducing our prison systems; we feel it as a disagreement over the burning of large sums of money to build a new prison. What we end up seeing is deadlock and indecision: an indication that few members of the county council are actually willing to spend those millions on a jail.

January 11, 2021 RES-320 was presented to the county public works and transportation committee by right-wing county board members to add an additional $24 million to the already approved $148 million prison consolidation project budget, and 2021 RES-319 will pay an additional $782,000 to consultant Mead & Hunt. Similar increases were not passed during county council budget deliberations in November 2021. This continued indecision is likely a good thing, not a scary wake-up call from a “far-left” disorder. The real winners are the consultants who have been pocketing millions and millions of dollars for decades to plan.

Here’s the thing: moderates need more self-awareness about blind spots. Fanlund speaks of the “extreme left”, but does not actually quote anyone from the left. Parisi is the leftmost person he talks to, and his other two interviews include current and previous county sheriffs. Frankly, our sheriffs shouldn’t be considered “left” because they work for what we on the left would call the “punitive bureaucracy“It’s in their business model to increase the prison population. Consider the perverse incentives of our societal systems: a sheriff’s department gets more money and more jobs the more people they lock up. We shouldn’t indiscriminately listening to the voices of our warped criminal punishment system, while complaining about an increasingly influential “far left” that gets nothing but passing mentions in all these articles about plans for consolidation of prisons.

Fanlund says he was convinced “that prison has become as much about dealing with mental health issues and addiction as it is about just locking up the bad guys.” Now this almost sounds like a far-left stance, if you take that “bad guys” label as an irony that’s dropped its quotes. It’s true! Not everyone in prison is a “bad guy” or even technically guilty despite our systems often acting as if that is the function of prison. If our prison is a place of detention for “bad people”, it is… bad.

Let us now return to the issue of treatment for mental health problems and addictions. Seems like those on the moderate left and far left can agree that this really is the most important part. If Dane County moderates really think that locking people up in jail is a good way to treat mental health issues and addictions, they should start listening to the experts and reading the research literature. Prisons dealing with mental health? It is a position held by reactionaries with their heads in the sand, who prefer to just put people behind bars and stop there.

Fanlund and the moderates are partly right in that the prison talk It’s as much about “treating mental health and addiction issues” as it is about locking people up. Imprisoning people is one of the worst ways to deal with mental health issues. Jails and prisons exacerbate mental health problems. Prisons do not “treat” mental health or solve problems in any way. Think about problems you have personally faced in your life or difficult issues with family members. Would any of these problems be improved by locking you in a cell and depriving you of your basic freedoms while awaiting your trial? Would much good come from forced psychiatric treatment? True addiction treatment does not involve confinement and should be voluntary whenever possible. The only “problems” our prison is supposed to solve are twofold: detaining the poor so they don’t miss their trial and hiding the rotten roots of our real societal problems behind bland cement.

Fanlund correctly sums up the “far left” perspective: “big spending on prison space is itself inhumane and leads to higher incarceration rates.” We cannot afford to let our criminal sanction systems go haywire when they already have such absurd biases against marginalized people. Sheriff Kalvin Barrett told Fanlund, “I would always put humanity first.” In that case, if Dane County truly cares about humanity, we must continue to work for reduce our prison population and to augment our options for housing, mental health care and addictions treatment outside prison. You can’t claim to put humanity first when you buy the bricks to put more poor people in cages.

We cannot continue to cage people at absurd rates with absurd racial bias. Make mistakes? It happens. But continuing to make the same mistake, thinking that our prisons “cure” people or makes us safer, is more than wrong. It’s disturbed. We have to try different paths. We need to get everyone to spend money on real care and treatment, and push our leaders to keep rethinking our punitive bureaucracy and real public safety instead of just mixing more cement to hide our problems behind.

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