Few issues put the split between liberals and the hard-left in more stark relief than the proposal to build a new Dane County jail.
Here are the basics. The county currently runs three jails. The main facility is in the Public Safety Building and it is a relatively new, modern jail. But the old jail that it was supposed to replace is still in operation because the county knowingly built the new jail too small. The old jail is on the top floors of the City County Building, opened in 1955. Former Sheriff Dave Mahoney called it inhumane and dangerous. The third facility is the minimum security Huber Center at the county fair grounds. It’s also aging and substandard.
So Mahoney, who was well-respected by everyone and a liberal Democrat, proposed building a new jail behind the Public Safety Building. The new jail would meet all modern standards for humane incarceration and it would have more room for activities and treatment of prisoners. It would have no rooms for solitary confinement. The jail in the CCB and the Huber Center would be shuttered and the total capacity of the system would be reduced by 91 beds, or about 10%.
After a lot of debate, the very progressive Dane County Board approved Mahoney’s plan, but not after about 50 protesters shut down a board meeting with chants of “Build people, not jails!” It is a cause on the hard-left to close down jails altogether. During last summer’s unrest hard-left activists actually called on Mahoney to release all prisoners, including accused murderers, rapists and other violent criminals. In the view of the hard-left all of them were political prisoners.
But here’s the thing. The debate’s not quite over. The City of Madison still has to sign off on technical zoning and design issues and that lands the whole thing in the Madison City Council, which is as leftist as it has ever been (quite a statement in this city). Alders are going to feel the pressure to deny the permits based — not on their legal authority to do so over technical questions — but on the ideology of imprisonment. Votes are expected next month.
It doesn’t help that Mahoney retired earlier this year and was replaced by a brand new sheriff, who is, as of yet, not speaking out forcefully for the project.
This is a test. It’s a choice between big progress and blowing up the whole system — which, when you think about it, is the chasm that separates the liberal left-center from the hard-left on everything. We can shut down inhumane facilities, replace them with a modern, safer one that provides more services, end solitary confinement and actually reduce the overall jail capacity by a significant 10%. Or we can close all jails and have those accused of violent crimes out on our streets.
The fact that this is even a debate highlights the split on the left and the central problem for the Democratic Party going into next year’s elections.