By Rob Chappell and Shereen Siewert
This is the third story in a three-piece collaboration between Wausau Pilot & Review and Madison365
There’s a surprising amount of agreement among law enforcement officials that there are too many people in Wisconsin’s jails and prisons.
“(Reducing the jail population) is important to me because I understand the effects of incarceration,” Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett said in an interview. “I understand how that affects employment, how that affects the mental health of someone, how that affects family relationships … All of the effects of incarceration really play a significant role in our overall community safety and our society’s well being. And so every day that someone spends incarcerated, they could spend out, they could be out and about getting a job, working, being with their families and contributing to society. So that’s why it was very important to me to ensure that we are not increasing our population unnecessarily.”
“Where we can, where victims are agreeable, we’re looking for diversions that would not send someone to jail,” said Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.
“It was the governor and my agenda to reform the way that we do things in community corrections,” and hold fewer people on parole and probation violations, said Secretary of Corrections Kevin Carr.
“Jail should be a last resort, not a first option,” said Marathon County Chief Deputy Sheriff Chad Billeb.
All got their wish in the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and it became clear that congregate facilities like jails and prisons were becoming a hotspot of spread. In addition to shutting down visitation and moving many day-to-day operations to remote video – court appearances, family visits, medical appointments and more were done remotely – jails and prisons simply worked to reduce their populations. In Marathon County, the 279-person capacity jail dropped from about 400 to 230. The Dane County Jail in-house population dropped nearly 30 percent — from about 700 to about 500 — and the number of people statewide in jails on parole and probation holds fell by more than half, from 3,680 to 1,723.
The pandemic struck in the midst of an ongoing, multi-year debate over the construction of a new jail for Dane County. And in Marathon County, officials were considering a new jail as well, one that would cost at least $75 million to build. There, the jail had been over capacity for years, forcing corrections staff to house inmates at nearby facilities – at taxpayer expense.
Deteriorating conditions at both facilities is also a factor. In February 2020, Marathon County finished $2.3 million in emergency repairs to fix serious structural deterioration at the jail, But both facilities will need future upgrades.
Barrett, who worked in the Dane County Jail as a deputy from 2009-11, said that in its current state the facility is “inhumane and not a safe place to house anyone, let alone people who we care about and are within our care.”
Advocates and activists contend that it’s not the facility that’s inhumane.
Activist Benji Ramirez cited the example of Jimmie Joshua, who Madison365 reported was left in a holding cell for 15 hours after having his hip broken by deputies.
“That’s not safety,” Ramirez said. “And anybody who feels safe with this brutalization of the black and brown bodies in their county is lying to themselves.” And it’s not the facility that caused the brutalization in that case, Ramirez said.
“It’s the officials running it. It’s the whole mentality of the cage runner, the cage operator, the enslaver,” they said.
Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner said most complaints are not about the condition of the jail itself, but about the way staff respond to inmates.
“Oftentimes (health-related) complaints relate to, ‘People were ignoring me when I said that I needed this care,’” Wegleitner said. “The complaints I get are less about, ‘Oh, the facility itself wasn’t conducive to my healing.’ It was that, ‘My condition wasn’t being taken seriously,’ or ‘I was mistreated,’ and that’s not a building thing. That’s an operational, personnel thing.”
Advocates have also noted that the rapid reduction in jail populations shows that overcrowding doesn’t have to be an issue, and any new facility could be smaller than currently planned.
“For years we’ve been told, ‘Well, we’re doing a great job. We can’t really lower the jail population much more. We need to build this jail,’” said Wegleitner, a consistent opponent of the new jail. “And then all of a sudden, it was, ‘Oh my goodness, look at what we can do when we come together and have a goal,’ and there is this obviously overarching public health imperative to keep people from dying, but it showed that we actually could, if there was a will to do it, put some changes in place and come together to really reduce the numbers. I’m hopeful that there is really an opportunity now.”
Some jail population reduction efforts happened quickly and are showing promise as a potential long-term solution. In Marathon County, corrections officials shifted all Huber inmates – those with work release privileges who stay in a separate wing of the facility – to electronic home monitoring, an experiment that the county is watching carefully. Rather than spending their nights at the jail, those inmates are now monitored at home where they care for their children, stay with their loved ones and work at their jobs. Chief Deputy Chad Billeb said EMP means corrections officials know where inmates are at all times, but allows them to serve their sentences in a way that is least disruptive to their lives.
“We’re not talking about violent people here,” Billeb said. “These are people who did not commit violent crimes. They have to serve a sentence, but they’re probably not best served by doing that behind bars.”
Marathon County Jail Deputy Administrator Paul Mergendahl said that so far, the change has been largely positive. A similar scenario is playing out in jails across the state.
“What we’ve seen in the midst of the pandemic is that we can let people go for non-violent offenses,” ramirez said. “We’ve also seen that the majority of people who are in jail are being detained because they can’t afford bail. So we’re advocating for the abolition of cash bail, something that Illinois and New Jersey have successfully done.”
How low can it go?
Officials and advocates alike put forward ideas to reduce the incarcerated population permanently. Abolition of cash bail would be one step, though Ozanne said upwards of 80 percent of those booked into the Dane County jail are released on signature bonds.
“Bail is not to keep people incarcerated. It’s to ensure that they make their next court appearance,” Ozanne said. “So if there’s no history of missed court appearances, there should be sort of a weight towards your own recognizance.”
Ozanne also said the pandemic might indirectly lead to more sentences that don’t include jail time. He noted that the courts stopped holding jury trials early in the pandemic, and many people have been out of jail and living productive lives for the past year or more while they await trial.
“Obviously for a number of people with open cases who have been in the community right now, hopefully having not lost their job, being able to work, not picking up new cases, that’s a huge argument to the Court to say, ‘I don’t need to be incarcerated,’” Ozanne said. “They’ve just had an extended period of time to, in some cases, prove themselves to the court.”
Ozanne also pointed to the Community Restorative Court in Dane County, which has been fully operational for just a few years. It keeps people out of the criminal justice system entirely if they go through a community-based restorative process — and any victims of their offenses are amenable to that process.
Ramirez had a few additional ideas to keep people out of jail.
“Decriminalize drugs,” they said. “Have spaces for folks to use drugs in a safe manner, right? Somebody who’s addicted to heroin isn’t going to stop shooting heroin tomorrow. They have a physical need for it, because their entire body chemistry has been changed by this really horrendous opioid. That’s one thing that we can do. We can decriminalize homelessness.”
Multiple people also identified the need to divert people with mental health issues away from the jail.
“The new jail plan would provide better space for people who are segregated because of mental health issues,” Wegleitner said. “I’d really like to see us keep folks out of jail who are in mental health crisis to begin with.”
Not just the number
Advocates see the current moment as an opportunity to address not only the total jail population, but the disparities in that population.
“Unfortunately what I think is ignored so often when Dane County pats itself on the back about our jail population, they’re just looking at the sheer numbers,” Wegleitner said. “But when we look at the breakdown by race and the disparities we have, it’s just horrible.”
Black people make up about seven percent of the population of Dane County, but just over half of the jail population. White people, on the other hand, make up nearly 80 percent of the county’s population but about 40 percent of the jail population.
That disparity affects not only those in the jail, but the discourse about incarceration outside the jail, Ramirez said.
“I don’t have a whole lot of faith in my neighbors who seem to be pushing for the (new) jail, but I think a lot of it too is just a lack of understanding of the carceral system,” they said. “I mean, I look at predominantly white folks who’ve never had a family member incarcerated. Who’ve never had any kind of arrest in their family. And it’s not because they’re law-abiding citizens. Right? It’s just the disparities in policing and who actually gets arrested and who actually enters this slippery slope of engaging with the carceral system. All of the people who lose jobs, because they’re held on bail that they can’t afford.”
Do the words match the deeds?
Ramirez said the mental health issue is one indicator that the county isn’t fully committed to keeping the incarcerated population low.
“The county is spending $0.3 million to build a Mental Health Crisis Center, but $225 million to build a new jail,” they said. “That shows you where the county’s priorities are. It’s exuberantly disproportionate. Do I believe that these officials are actually committed to this idea of decarceration or reducing jail population? I don’t believe it. Show me where their priorities are with the money. Follow the money.”
Ramirez would like officials in the system to take a stand on the new jail project.
“Kalvin Barrett said that he’s entering the Sheriff’s office with the mindset of being a peace officer. But he still hasn’t taken a stance on the jail,” Ramirez said. “He still hasn’t said, ‘No, we don’t need this jail.’ And so, no, I’m not going to trust him.”
One complicating factor is the number of agencies and systems within the criminal justice system that all have a say in the jail population: the police making arrests and referring charges; the prosecutors charging the crimes; the judges setting bail and handing down sentences; the Department of Corrections ordering or releasing parole and probation holds; the sheriff’s office allowing work release or electronic monitoring.
These agencies need to work together, Wegleitner said.
“If we all just kind of point fingers and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ nothing’s going to happen,” she said. “But if we’re kind of all committed to decarceration, to reducing disparities, reducing the jail population numbers and keeping it down like we were able to do during COVID, I think that that’s the better route.”
This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, The Beacon/KCUR; Bridge Michigan/Side Effects Public Media; Cicero Independiente/South Side Weekly; Detour Detroit/Planet Detroit/Tostada Magazine; Evanston RoundTable/Growing Community Media; Madison 365/Wausau Pilot & Review; and MinnPost/Sahan Journal. The project was made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with additional support from INN’s Amplify News Project and the Solutions Journalism Network.