The Wisconsin Corrections System is needlessly short-sighted in proposed solutions to its many problems. Just last Spring, two bills on the state Senate floor energized prison reformists across the state: one that would provide 350 million dollars for a new prison and another that would begin the process of closing the last juvenile detention center at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools in favor of moving the ever-dwindling population (currently 161 with operating capacity at 603) to smaller facilities. The former, SB 54, also seemed to harshen the penalties for breaking the rules of extended supervision (formerly parole), which already contributes to multiple thousands of individuals becoming re-incarcerated each year. Many organizations, specifically a civic action group in Wisconsin called WISDOM and ROC Wisconsin (an organization fighting against mass incarceration) fought against SB 54 through lobbying. Students at St. Norbert College and myself organized a phone drive that resulted in a phone call back from a state senator’s office to “please stop calling for goodness sake, you are taking up all our time.” I have to admit, I smiled a bit at that.
The Corrections system is running high budgets with little to claim in the way of achievement, there are several solutions proposed by experts, studied by organizations, and implemented in other states across the country. Over the next few blog posts, I am going to be studying three ways that Wisconsin Corrections can become more fiscally sound. If there is one part of government I agree is spending too much money, it is the corrections system, and we can do a lot better. The money saved in the department can go towards crime prevention strategies, the addition of social workers and parole officers who are currently underpaid and overworked, alcohol and drug treatment centers, stronger education, and even infrastructure in communities. Reinvestment in all of these areas has been proven to actually reduce crime, as opposed to simply locking more and more people up past the breaking point.
First, I’ll look at how crimeless revocations (being reincarcerated without committing a new crime) affects prison populations. Second, I’ll examine how the “old law” incarcerated people are affected under Truth in Sentencing. And lastly, I’ll show how an investment in Treatment, Alternatives, and Diversion programs can impact families across the state as well as save taxpayers money.
For a little more introduction to the issue, Senate Bill 54 I mentioned above was tabled for the time being, however the pursuit for building a new prison, potentially to replace maximum security facility Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI) is still a popular idea. A recent article in the Green Bay Press Gazette analyzes the lucrative opportunities for the city of Allouez and Brown County if the prison were to close and the land developed. It’s not hard to understand ethically why many would favor closing the prison and building a new one: the institution was built in 1898 on the grounds of an old bicycle factory to house 749 men, but it currently (as of Sept. 14) holds 1,097. The rise of violent and major incidents noted in the prison’s yearly fiscal reports has led to cutting back on prison programming in order to reduce movement. The violent encounters has created a staffing shortage as well because of the risks at the institution.
Green Bay is but a symptom of the larger disease in the Wisconsin Corrections System: short-sighted thinking. A new prison may alleviate the overcrowding temporarily across prisons, but if nothing is done to address the reasons why so many Wisconsinites are imprisoned, the problem will only continue. Across the country, some very surprising states are making sweeping corrections reforms. Under Republican Governor Chris Christie, New Jersey cut the number of crimeless revocations by about half and as a result closed multiple facilities. With a combination of ideas in Wisconsin, instead of building a new prison to replace our crumblings ones, we could close them down lock, stock, and barrel.