EXPLORING THE HIGHS AND LOWS - LGM26, May 2019
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The experiential learning aspect of LGM means participants don't just hear about important issues, they have a chance to see and engage with critical pieces of our community’s infrastructure. On this beautiful May day, LGM26 found themselves experiencing some serious highs and lows as they continued their LGM journey. Below are reflections on the fourth session from Mike Webber and Emily Endres Green.
GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL: RAISING MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
Mike Webber, WIPFLI
I was eagerly anticipating the May 2019 session at the Wisconsin State Capitol and the County Jail. An alumna of a previous LGM class told me the tour of the Dane County Jail was one of the most influential activities for her, and it had a significant impact on me as well.
Prior to the tour of the jail, Carousel Bayrd, Dane County Supervisor-District 8, provided context of the local criminal justice system during her presentation on the Cost of Corrections. This was a timely discussion as the Dane County Board was considering options for updating the jail and subsequently approved a $148 million plan to construct a new jail near the Public Safety Building and consolidate the County’s jails.
I knew there were racial disparities in the criminal justice system but was surprised to hear Ms. Bayrd start her presentation by emphatically stating that the current system is racist and that must be understood before you can have any meaningful conversations about the current state of the system and efforts for reform. She stated that people of color make up approximately 5% of the Dane County population and 38% of the population in the Dane County Jail. It left me wondering exactly why this vast disparity exists and what can be done to reduce it.
Ms. Bayrd also emphasized Dane County’s efforts to reduce the jail population that have had success in terms of the number of people currently incarcerated, with an average per day jail population down from about 1,000 to approximately 750-800. This is at the same time as the total population of Dane County is increasing significantly. Even with these advances, however, racial disparities have not improved. Dane County’s model for reducing the jail population including bail reform, electronic monitoring, community court, deferred prosecution, and community service alternatives seem to be working, but why aren’t they making an impact on racial disparities?
The new jail plan recently approved by the Dane County board will have better space for mental health services for inmates. I continue to be surprised at the intersection of the issues of inadequate access to mental health services and the stigma surrounding mental health with numerous problems facing our community such as poverty, homelessness, and criminal justice inequities. The shortage of adequate mental health services for the most vulnerable in our population continues to be an issue that we discuss at each session, no matter what the area of focus is for that month.
After Ms. Bayrd’s presentation, we took a tour of the Dane County jail. I had never seen the jail, and honestly, didn’t even know it was located at the Dane County Public Service building. I have driven by that location a thousand times and was never aware the jail was there. My first impression was how outdated and decrepit the conditions of the current jail were. The original jail was built in the 1950’s, with some renovations since then (I believe the last significant renovations were in the 1990’s), and the age of the jail was obvious during the tour. I was especially concerned about the isolation units and questioned the humanity of isolating inmates in these cells when they were having mental health or behavioral problems. I understand the need to isolate inmates at certain times, but was appalled at the current isolation units, and trust the new jail will have better spaces for inmates in crisis.
When asked about his biggest challenge working at the jail, the Sherriff who took us on our tour stated it was dealing with the mental health challenges of the inmates. He believes the problem is getting worse, and I was left wondering if it was truly getting worse, or are we as a society becoming more aware of the impact mental health problems can have on someone’s life? Based on what I have learned so far this year with LGM, I was not surprised the issue of mental health problems, and inadequate access to services, came up again during the tour.
I am thankful to have been a participant at the May 2019 session. I now have a better understanding of the current state of our local criminal justice system, but at the same time, I left with more questions than I had at the beginning of the day. But that is ok…asking meaningful questions is the first step to addressing the important issues facing our community.
EXTREME HIGHS AND LOWS
Emily Endres Green, Schools of Hope
As we were told at the beginning of the day, high and low was the theme for Session 4. My first low? After reviewing the agenda, I cannot say I was excited the focus was on taxes. But like most weeks, I learned I had a lot to learn.
Carousel Bayrd, Dane County Supervisor for District 8, was the first “high” of the day and really set up the learning we would have the rest of the session. Her impassioned talk about the cost of corrections highlighted the issues within our criminal justice system and jails. She argued that we have to both acknowledge the justice system is racist and actively work to reduce the number of people, especially people of color, from our jails while at the same time making sure the jails we do have are humane and appropriate for the challenges people there face. In her opinion, the current Dane County jail was neither humane nor appropriate for the mental health challenges many of the people in our jails face. I was able to see this myself when we toured the jail. For me, this tour was the lowest point of the day for me.
Regardless of how you feel about the criminal justice system, I would hope everyone who tours the Dane County jail would be in agreement that we can do better. I completely concur with Carousel there needs to be fewer people in jail and that we need racial justice reform and other ways for those with mental health or drug addictions to get help outside of the criminal justice system. But I also agree that the Dane County jail is not ok. Most concerning to me was the lack of appropriate space for those inmates who are experiencing mental health crisis. We can do better.
The high of the day was extremely high. Going from the jail to the Capital building was jarring. Luckily, we had Jason Stein from the Wisconsin Policy Forum lead us on an activity that highlighted just how complicated and complex taxes and tax policy can be. Who knew taxes could be fun?!
The high, literally, of the day was an ascent to the top of the Capital building where I learned that I was more afraid of heights than I thought. Or maybe my anxiety was still high after the jail visit. Either way it was a great experience to see this symbol of government from such a unique perspective.
I think that is what I appreciate most about my LGM experience so far. As someone who works in the nonprofit world, I thought I had a pretty good perspective on greater Madison and what issues we are facing. After learning so much over the last four weeks, I am realizing that it is also me who needs to do better.