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County Eyes North Side Duplexes for Women’s Jail Facility

July 3, 2008

By Reid Magney, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Jul. 3–La Crosse County officials have abandoned plans for a women’s jail facility on Cameron Avenue and now have focused on a North Side site.

Two city-owned duplexes at the corner of Kane and St. Paul streets could be used for a jail alternative program for up to 10 women, according to letters hand-delivered to the neighborhood Tuesday and Wednesday. Several of those neighbors said Wednesday they’re opposed to putting female offenders nearby.

“When I think of a women’s jail population, I don’t think of having a neighborhood with 27 kids on one block a good place to have a jail,” said Kris Schwabenbauer, 1215 Kane St., who lives half a block from the duplexes with her husband and three kids.

Even more children live beyond the immediate block, said Sarah Waite, 1205 Kane St., a mother of nine.

The city of La Crosse owns the duplexes, which were built about a dozen years ago as temporary housing for people in a federal lead paint abatement program. They would be leased to the county for one year until a permanent home can be “located and remodeled to suit the needs of the women in the program,” the letter states.

In recent years, the duplexes have been used for housing by Couleecap, a Westby, Wis.-based antipoverty agency, but recently have been vacant.

One unit was damaged by a fire last month, and has been condemned by the city’s Department of Building and Inspections.

In the letter, County Administrator Steve O’Malley and Human Services Director Jerry Huber tell neighbors the jail alternative program has been used in other places and “is safe and effective for the offender and the community.”

The letter invites neighbors to a public meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, July 14, at the Coulee Region Business Center, 1100 Kane St., just down the block from the duplexes.

Supervisor Sharon Hampson, chairwoman of the La Crosse County Health and Human Services Board, said Wednesday the board will discuss the program at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The program also must be approved by the full county board.

Last month, neighbors in the historic area near Aquinas High School loudly objected to county plans to lease a large, older house on Cameron Avenue.

“Why do we have to put up with it?” said retired truck driver Bob Rucinski, 1208 Kane St. “If it wasn’t good enough for the people on the South Side, why is it good enough for us on the North Side?”

Some of the neighborhood opposition comes from the city’s decision many years ago to put the lead abatement duplexes there instead of a city park, said Tom Schwabenbauer. The duplexes were a “debacle” because it really was used as low-income housing, he said.

The jail alternative program would be for women inmates who don’t have a safe or permanent residence. They would receive drug and alcohol treatment, financial counseling, health care, trauma counseling parenting skills and nutrition education. They would have electronic ankle bracelets and other security devices, but the county would not provide 24-hour supervision.

“I believe in giving somebody a second chance,” said Mary Rucinski. “But it makes me uneasy. They should tear down those two buildings and put in a playground.”

Reid Magney can be reached at (608) 791-8211 or rmagney@lacrossetribune.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

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