Jail Renovations Debate

On March 12, 2015, Sara McKinnon hosted a debate on the question of whether renovations to the Dane County Jail will ensure the safety of vulnerable people in our community. You can watch the full video of the debate here.

Here are a few media reports on the debate:

Sheriff Defends Need for Jail Renovations in Debate, Madison.com

Debate Over Jail Puts Sheriff on Defensive, Cap Times

Sheriff Mahoney Debates Jail Renovations with Opponents, WKOW

YGB and the Sheriff Debate Jail Renovations, Badger Herald

YGB Debates the Sheriff, Daily Cardinal

Sheriff David Mahoney and physician and retired UW Clinical Professor Dr. Douglas Kramer were on the affirmative side and M. Adams of Freedom Inc and Young Gifted and Black was joined on the negative side by Nino Rodriguez of the MOSES Jail Taskforce. The debate drew around 330 people to UW’s campus. at the start of the debate, with 181 people participating, 16 agreed with the proposition, 113 disagreed and 52 were unsure. At the end, with 231 people participating, 16 still agreed, 195 disagreed, and only 20 were still unsure. This meant that the negative side won the debate for this audience.

As part of the debate audience members turned in questions to pose to debaters. Only a small fraction of those got read, so the rest are included here for the sake of creating dialogue and further discussion. Feel free to respond to any of these questions in the comments.


Is there a way to move beyond the false dichotomy of the two groups debating tonight?

If we are housing a large percentage of mentally ill, what percentage of mentally ill are black?

Is it not more beneficial to address core issues resulting in institutionalization before one is institutionalized? Why aren’t more resources allocated to the community to address these issues before its too late?

Have you had any jailed person or their family tell you that jail helped them? Are there multiple offenses of the 350 in jail, or do other factors keep them there?

What does the jail benefit in our community?

When new hospitals are built, there are great pressures to justify the financial investment–this sometimes means sick people filling beds is better than keeping people out of the hospital and health. Do you feel the same pressures would exist for a new jail?

Why does the state of Wisconsin spend more money on incarceration than on higher education and how can we reverse this trend?

Is Scott Walker listening to this debate?


Would releasing 350 from the jail improve conditions there?

How much do doors cost?

What amount of funds would be spent on special needs housing?

How would a new jail cell solve the issues with mental wellness and the uneven incarceration rate?

How much of the money that is going to the renovations is going straight to the facilities that directly alleviate and address mental health issues in Dane County?

Why do people with mental health issues need to be in the criminal justice system at all? They need a hospital not a jail. (several people asked a version of this question)

Why not build a mental health hospital instead of a jail?

Why hasn’t the sheriff heard our argument (from MOSES) that the quickest way to solve the CCB safety problem is to get people out of those areas by immediate changes in policies at all levels including Huber, home bracelets, etc.?

Why should anyone be put through solitary confinement, mentally ill or not? To the physician, do you feel the money would be better allocated toward building a state mental health hospital rather than a jail?

I’ve worked as a psychiatric nurse, which involves several hours per day of human contact and therapeutic conversations and counseling. Dane County Jail pays $4.7 million to a health care contractor, but no basic psych nursing is provided. Since federal law requires parity of mental health service, why isn’t this required?

The Dane County Adult Mental Health System of the Department of Human Services has contracts for services with 22 agencies and 58 programs. Sheriff, wouldn’t releasing people with mental health challenges into the care of these professionals save your department and the county money, staff time and resources?

How concerned about racial equity is law enforcement in Madison? What steps have been taken that would make this conversation fruitful?

Sheriff, what are you going to do to ensure that black people are given the same opportunity to be in drug court? Blacks are 97 times more likely to be locked as whites for the same drug crimes yet not receiving the same level of help, re drug courts.

Sheriff, how do you measure the success of the prison system? By how many individuals aren’t repeat “offenders”? How many are repeat offenders because when they are released they face discrimination in housing, employment, neighbors, etc.?

What percentage of people in Dane County Jail are there for crimes of violence against others? Why can’t non-violent be released?

If we need to house minors separately, why are they in a jail for adults? Why are children locked up in jail?

What proportion of arrests are drug possession, users or addicts in need of treatment?

Why would domestic violence victims be sent to jail in the first place?

Sheriff, how could you spearhead a change to the system?

Sheriff, you have been in the justice system for 35 years. Why are you only now beginning to acknowledge problems in the system?

Racial disparities are multifaceted and complex where many factors contribute. In what way will/can the Sheriff commit to addressing them in his own way?

Sheriff, would renovating the jail delay the realization of the vision of a better system that you share with M. and Nino?

Sheriff’s Department deputies have been mobilized for the detention of people with Department of Corrections probation/holds. Why are the resources and overtime pay of your staff, with our taxpayer dollars, going to further support state-sanctioned violence? Wisconsin has the worst rates of incarceration for vulnerable populations of black people, and they come from our county jails. Why is your department willing to contribute to our state’s most dubious issue? Why is your department willing to make our state’s numbers worse?

We know that most mass shooters are young white males. How will they get into the Dane County Jail when it is being filled with black men?

Dr. Kramer, were you a plant for the negative position since everything you said strengthened that position?

Have you changed your mind?


Do you believe jail renovations and working to end mass incarceration are mutually exclusive?

For those who can’t be or aren’t released, what aspects of the renovation are not mutually exclusive with your recommendations?

Those arrested and booked into jail are presumably there because of behaviors that suspects have committed that are outside the law. How do you propose that consequences are meted out fairly?

Assume all the concerns of your side are addressed, there will still be people booked into the jail who are truly dangerous to the community. These people still deserve a safe, secure place to be held. What is the objection to creating that place?

Do you not think a minimal amount of money should be used to fix the faulty doors that could be life-threatening? Even if 350 people were released, this would still be dangerous.

Is your main argument that the resources for a new jail should be used elsewhere or is it that the new jail issue is a smokescreen?

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