Karma R. Chávez
I believe very much in the definition of prison abolition offered by Critical Resistance, which defines it as “a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.” Because of my strong view against the prison industrial complex, I’ve been surprised at how little talk the recent proposal to the Dane County Board of Supervisors for a new or renovated Dane County Jail has generated. I’ve been especially flummoxed because the proposal is for an expected $135 million expenditure, the largest in the history of Dane County. A few articles from the Cap Times have offered the best coverage. A handful of pieces in the Isthmus, Wisconsin State Journal and a spot on WORT’s 8 O’Clock Buzz have addressed various aspects of the proposal. I’ve discussed it twice on my radio show, but given the significance of what’s being proposed, there’s been very little buzz. Some groups in town are organizing. For example, MOSES, Madison’s chapter of WISDOM, which works on prison reform statewide, has organized a New Jail Response Team designed to assess what position MOSES should take in relation to the jail proposal. I have been meeting with a small group of prison abolitionists in an informal working group that emerged out of LGBT Books to Prisoners in order to decide how to oppose the jail. In my view, the construction of a new jail is unacceptable, even given the deplorable conditions of the current one.
But it is easy to hold such an ideological position against a proposed jail when you haven’t seen the current facilities. So, on August 7, a group of us affiliated with LGBT Books to Prisoners and the abolitionist working group took Sheriff Mahoney up on his offer to facilitate tours of two of the three parts of the current jail--the Public Safety Building (PSB) and the City County Building (CCB) (the Ferris Center is the third part, which is not included in the tour). We met at the PSB at 8 am, a group of six people, who probably appeared to the staff to be all women and mostly white. This point is important because even though we were told that we would need to check our bags before going on the tour, the sergeant who gave us the tour never asked us to. Apparently unthreatening, we carried our bags throughout the jail. At least two of us had pocket knives in our bags.
Our sergeant-tour guide, clearly one of the best and brightest as he was chosen to be the public face of the jail, framed the tour in a way that seemed straight out of an old west narrative that pitted “good guys” against “bad guys.” This kind of individualized story emerges from and extends bigger myths about personal responsibility, meritocracy, and the rule of law, themes that pervaded on the tour. Clearly propaganda in service of the Sheriff’s agenda for a new jail, the number one message our tour guide wanted us to hear was that the job of the jail was to provide care, custody, and control, a point he repeated several times. Our tour began in the visitation room with some general information about county jails and the distinction between jails and prisons. The guide asked, “Aside from being notorious, what did Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Gotti and Ted Kaczynski have in common?” With a smirk on his face he responded, “They had all been housed in county jails at one time.” To the sergeant, this meant that because any person in jail could be a dangerous serial killer or a unabomber, all had to be treated as if they could potentially be one. And so the tour began.
The guide then took us through booking. We learned how someone processed receives a medical and mental health exam, a uniform and plastic shoes, and a place in the jail. People are divided into male and female units, and if someone is trans or gender non-conforming the sergeant explained that the jail staff take people’s self-identification into consideration and attempt to house people where they will be safe, though it seemed that jail personnel essentially make the decision based on physical appearance. We also learned how it is determined in which kind of unit someone is housed--minimum or medium security, maximum security, or segregated housing. Sometimes a person’s housing unit is given as a “privilege” for “good behavior.”
As the Dane County Jail report details, one of the most horrific aspects of the current jail is its inability to serve people with mental health issues in a humane way. The conditions are currently so bad they don’t meet the already-low professional standards for jail service provision. Right now, if someone is suffering from mental health issues and is at risk of harming themselves or others, the only option is to place them in solitary units where they have no contact with the general population. Put differently, those with severe mental health issues are treated punitively as if they engaged in “bad behavior.” And those units are really awful. Some of those units are in the oldest part of the jail, that housed in the CCB and built in the 1950s. With steel bars painted yellowed white, and heavy doors on the units that look like they should be on an ice cooler. Those units seem straight out of a bad prison movie. In Dane County though, they are a reality. As our tour guide walked us through this section of the jail, he showed us the restraint chairs that people are sometimes attached to when they won’t calm down. We were informed that people could only be restrained for two hours at a time so that they didn’t develop blood clots in their legs. We asked what happens if someone doesn’t calm down after two hours. He replied they had to walk them, sometimes forcibly, in order to get their blood flowing. If they still weren’t calm, they’d return to the chair for another two hours. To be sure, the situation is dire and I don’t envy the deputies that have to do that work.
We also saw the “outdoor” recreation space--half of a gymnasium that meets the legal mandate for “outdoor space” because of the giant raised and gated windows it has that let in natural light. It is supposed to meet the recreation needs for all 800 people who live at the jail on any given day. Rec time is very limited--two hours a week, and it is another privilege doled out based on good behavior. In fact, most privileges and punishments in the jail are based on individual behavior and their willingness to be personally responsible. According to our tour guide, it was a person’s fault that they were in jail, and it is their fault if they are punished or rewarded. The system has no role in any of it.
We saw other parts of the jail too that are more up-to-date. These included the minimum and medium security units, which are dormitory style with televisions, and the minimum security has commissary. It felt very voyeuristic to enter those spaces as people engaged in their daily activities: talking, sleeping, watching TV, urinating--all on display for the tour. Coincidentally or not, minimum security was comprised predominantly of white men, while medium security held mostly black men.
There is a lot more I could say about this visit. Seeing how inhumane parts of the jail are did not change my mind about opposing the proposed new jail. If anything, it renewed my resolve. Incarceration is inhumane. We need alternatives to incarceration that work for those communities most likely to be targeted by the system. We need affordable mental health services that affirm the dignity and agency of those who have mental illness. These services should not be about over-medicating people into docile subjects, but about providing an array of options. We need to make services that the wealthy take for granted such as therapy available to poor and working class people so they too have the opportunity to learn about themselves and their environments in healing ways. We need to create environments where people have access to basic life skills, education, and resources so the options before them are plentiful and not solely focused on survival. And we need to be working together to make the changes we want in our communities. What we don’t need are kinder and gentler cages.
If you’re interested in touring the jail, contact Lori Prieur at 608-284-6176 or Prieur.firstname.lastname@example.org. You will have to fill out a background check form, and you will have to use your legal name and sex to do so.
If you’re interested in organizing against the new jail, you can send me an email at email@example.com or stop by Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative (426 W. Gilman) on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of the month at 8 pm for a working group meeting.
Thanks to Sara McKinnon, Irene Toro Martínez, Katherine Charek Briggs, and Dan S. Wang for their feedback on this piece.