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Dane County Jail

Under renovation plans for the Dane County Jail, the three current facilities would be combined into an expanded Public Safety Building. Mitigation efforts in one of the facilities that will eventually be closed, the City-County Building, are underway. 


A $4.4 million effort to make the oldest portion of the Dane County Jail safer for inmates, staff and volunteers is underway, but officials say it is still a “Band-Aid” solution until the new jail is built.

The Dane County Board approved funding for stopgap measures following a recommendation from consultants Mead & Hunt, Potter Lawson and Pulitzer/Bogard to close the City-County Building jail “with due haste.”

The report also estimated it would cost more than $47 million to bring the City-County Building jail up to current building code and safety standards.

“We’re in kind of survival mode until the jail remodel is done,” Lt. Kurt Pierce said.

Pierce estimated that construction on the new jail would start in 2019 and take between 18 months and two years to complete.

Built in 1954 with an expansion in 1985, the linear-style jail in the City-County Building downtown is one of three jail facilities that make up the county jail. Under the approved renovation plans, the county’s three-site jail would be consolidated into an expanded Public Safety Building by closing the City-County Building jail and the Ferris Center for work-release inmates on Rimrock Road.

A majority of incidents involving malfunctioning doors and hardware take place in the oldest part of the City-County Building jail, Pierce said, which some say resembles Alcatraz.

In 2017, there were 110 door malfunction incidents and 81 problems related to keys and locks, according to data from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office provided through an open records request. Those numbers are up from a total of 181 incidents in 2016, 141 in 2015 and 117 in 2014.

A deputy may encounter a problem opening the door when trying to deliver breakfast to jail inmates, but the threat is magnified in the event of an emergency, like a fire, that would require inmates to be moved laterally or evacuated.

Pierce said the antiquated facility is so old that when a door failure occurs, oftentimes facilities management has to make a new part.

“They can’t order out and have it Fed-Exed here,” Pierce said.

Jail safety updates

Replacing the lock and release mechanisms and adding an override capability in case doors need to be opened during a power outage are a major aspect of the jail renovations.

Lt. Chris Nygaard said approximately 68 doors across 16 cell blocks require renovation, and the project is slightly over halfway complete.

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“It’s in preparation for any emergency we have in the jail that requires us to do our job and safely evacuate or move inmates laterally around the jail,” Nygaard said of the mitigation efforts.

So far in the mitigation process, luminous markings have been added to the emergency stairwell exits to increase visibility in case they need to be used when the power is out.

Additionally, the air ducts in the City-County Jail have been cleaned to increase airflow. Nygaard said it is not known the last time they were cleaned.

Approximately 50 cameras will also be added in stairways, hallways and cell blocks to address compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Due to the City-County Building jail’s design, the facility will never be fully compliant with PREA, which is intended to deter the sexaul assault of inmates.

The cameras are especially needed to compensate for the minimal line of sight deputies have due to the linear design of the City-County Building jail.

Addressing lead paint in the jail is ongoing, some windows need to be replaced and pressurized air chambers will be added into the emergency exits to make it easier to breathe in case of an evacuation due to a fire.

Nygaard estimates the mitigation efforts will be complete by the end of the year but is looking ahead to new jail.

“The consolidation is a much needed project,” Nygaard said. “We are very excited it is moving forward, that the County Board and citizens saw the same need.”

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.