The killing of Michael Brown and protests in Ferguson, Mo., have called national attention to the high number of deaths of black people at the hands of white police. A number of rallies and vigils have taken place in Madison, and across the country, to stand in solidarity with Ferguson residents. Some have asked how the events in Ferguson relate to Dane County.

Perhaps the most important linkage is the proposal for a new Dane County Jail with an estimated price tag of $150 million. A recent article indicated the jail proposal is dead; however, as Dane County Supervisor Leland Pan pointed out, there is currently $8 million in this year's budget available for study of jail proposals. Even if the $150 million jail has been ruled out, officials are still talking about building a less expensive facility, or expanding or renovating current facilities. 

The 2013 Race to Equity report highlighted that Dane County has the worst discrepancy between incarceration rates for black and white people in the country. Black folks make up 6 percent of the county population, and nearly 50 percent of the county jail population. In 2010 the Task force on Racial Disparities in the Dane County Criminal Justice System offered 10 priority recommendations that would come with a cost, as well as 10 no-cost items. Some of these have been implemented, while many have not.

Given events in Ferguson, and the history of attempting to address racial disparities here, there has been less attention paid than one might imagine to the proposal to build an expensive new jail. The Sheriff’s Department championed the plan as a solution to the lack of proper facilities for the many inmates with mental health struggles. The proposal called for replacing three current jail facilities with one, eliminating some facilities that are failing federal standards. The proposal also called for an increased use of inmate labor, which would cut union jobs, and importing youth from juvenile detention centers around the state as a way to increase revenue for jail operations.

Multiple groups are working to offer alternatives to spending any money on jail facilities. For example, Linda Ketchum, executive director of Madison-area Urban Ministry, highlights a way to lower the jail population. She points out that the Dane County Community Support Program, which serves adults with mental illness, has fewer beds now than 10 years ago. The county has not been increasing funding for them, let alone provided funds specifically designed to keep people with significant mental illness from returning to prison or jail.

The protests in Ferguson were not only about the killing of Mike Brown and the poor handling of the situation, but about years of mistreatment of black people by the police, and years of institutional racism. Black communities in Madison similarly suffer. The Race to Equity Report indicated that black kids in Dane County are 13 times more likely to grow up in poverty than their white counterparts and 15 times more likely to be sent to the state’s detention program. Black youth are six times more likely to be arrested than white youth, and black adults are arrested at a rate more than eight times that of white adults.

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From Madison to Ferguson and everywhere in between, the police and the prison/industrial complex are primary institutions perpetuating structurally racist violence against black communities. As Mike Martez Johnson, Progressive Dane leader, put it, “Being a person of color in Dane County, when I hear people say they want to build a new jail, I feel they are saying that they are willing to subject me to the ongoing violence of disproportionate incarceration.”

As we move forward as a community to grapple with jail proposals, let us ask questions that are bigger than we sometimes take the time to ask. While some improvements of facilities may be needed, how is Dane County balancing these needs with addressing the ongoing violence against communities of color at the hands of the criminal justice system? Will we approve jail projects without thoroughly addressing the well-documented incarceration disparities? Or will we explicitly prioritize and put resources toward ending the ongoing crisis of disproportionate incarceration rates in Dane County?

Z Haukeness is a community organizer, working with several organizations to promote racial justice. Karma R. Chavez teaches in Madison and is also doing work related to the Dane County jail proposal.