Derail the Jail…Because Math!

by Allison Bell Bern

When did it become irrational to want people to be free?

In her seminal work, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander sheds light on how an abolitionist stance with regards to prisons went from mainstream to marginal. Until just the 1970’s, she reminds us, abolition was actually the dominant perspective among experts and politicians alike. Equipped with the knowledge that prisons augment rather than suppress an individual’s “criminality,” most prison experts stood to close all juvenile carceral facilities and most adult prisons, too.

Then came decades of political campaigning and policy work that exploited white racist fear of the fictional black criminality, and, today, even much of the so-called progressive community thinks the word “abolition” put next to “police” or “prison” is an utterance reserved for irrational idealists.

Alexander’s project is a first step in breaking through widely accepted dogma about the role and value of the USA’s institutions of incarceration. If the elected Supervisors of the Dane County Board haven’t read The New Jim Crow, it would be a good place to start their analysis of whether or not to spend $108 million dollars on expanding the Public Safety Building jail .

Well, the irrational idealists might actually be the only rational people among us. For those willing to look long and hard at the facts, it really does appear that truth comes down on the side of abolition. For those looking to learn more about police and prison abolition, here is a resource that could really get you thinking:

Abolitionist study can be, however, an in depth endeavor, and, though a critical one, you don’t need to agree with prison abolition right now in order to oppose spending $108M on new jail facilities. And although it would make conversations around this issue a lot easier if people were willing to develop an analysis about the inherent racist, sexist, classist, and ableist oppression that the prison system represents, there are plenty of other reasons to oppose this jail construction. For right now, we don’t need to understand why jail itself is a bad idea to be able to understand why spending $108 million on THIS jail is a bad idea. As it turns out, the rationale for this no-brainer needn’t go past what can be understood by most ninth grade algebra students.

Even dyed-in-the-wool liberals shouldn’t have difficulty wrapping their minds around what amounts to: basic math.

X=$108,000,000, An Immense Number of Dollars

Speaking of liberals, County Supervisor Carousel Bayrd, for one, justifies her support for spending $108 million on building new jail facilities with an optimism uncharacteristic of politics in 2017. The old City County Building jail is a piece of crap and, because Bayrd’s benevolence extends through cell bars, she doesn’t want people who are incarcerated to have to be locked up inside a piece of crap; Bayrd wants to build new, shinier, and safer cages to lock people up. Her benevolence, for some reason, cannot countenance releasing people from cages in sufficient numbers so as to avoid the whole dilemma. Yet Bayrd, like many other Madison establishment politicos, has spent considerable airspace paying lip service to “alternatives to incarceration” that might do exactly this – facilitate a reduction in the number of incarcerated people sufficient to prevent new jail construction.

But Bayrd’s not to be deterred. When it comes to having her cake and eating it, too, she wants it ALL:

“It’s not one or the other,” Bayrd wrote on Facebook. “I have and continue to propose criminal justice programs – bail reform, drug court crisis center, restorative justice, funding DAs office, funding reentry programs, etc.” Her optimism bubbles up to excitement and she ends her communique in all caps: “LETS DO MORE.”

But ALL is just not to be had, and it appears that Bayrd has forgotten that money is a limited resource. $108,000,000 isn’t just a lot of money; it’s a lot of OUR money. It’s money that cannot be spent on other things: alternatives to incarceration, prevention of incarceration, anything other than incarceration. The math is basic: ($108,000,000 that would have once been available for things) – ($108,000,000 spent on a warehouse with human cages) = $0 left for things. Capitalism inherently makes this a “one or the other” situation. You can’t spend a dollar on two things that each cost a dollar.

Theoretically, Bayrd is correct, because the Board could certainly go back in session and authorize another $108 Million (or even $200 million! why stop there?!) for the next project, hopefully something better than a jail, possibly those alternatives she likes to talk about. But this hasn’t happened, and there’s no question that part of the reason these alternatives go unfunded is because Supervisors are considerate not to spend the public’s money willy-nilly. Money will always be a limited resource, and large sums of money spent on bad ideas (like locking people up in new jail cells) unquestionably reduce the amount of appetite for expense on better ones.

And what else can $108,000,000 buy? Use your imagination. Think about what an investment like this into the community, into affordable housing, housing with integrated services, community-based health care facilities, drug treatment centers, public transportation, or green energy investment, could do. Remember the Young Gifted and Black Coalition’s call for us to invest in Black community initiatives? Think what Black folks in Dane County could do with $108,000,000.


And if you really want to get specific, here’s something the county could pay for:

  • 540 – 720 affordable apartments to house  over 1,000 people.

This amount of money could pay for in the real world:

  • 10 years of a $15/hour living wage for 346 people
  • 9 years of grocery bills for 1,000 families of five (5,000 people)
  • 10 years of contracts for 309 teachers

See – it’s just as I promised: basic math. No deep analysis needed. So, even if you haven’t taken the time to understand abolition (but, really, you ought to), and even if you don’t quite yet grasp how police and prisons actually make us LESS safe (you can get there, though; I know it), and even if you aren’t quite yet ready to say NO to state violence as a whole (please, though, at some point soon, do), you can – and you must – say “no” to THIS jail.

Abolishing the carceral state is one thing – one important thing that we can talk more about another day. But refusing to feed it is another. Let’s not do that in Dane County. Let’s spend this $108,000,000 on something – on anything – else.

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