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Ed Wall: Wisconsin prisons need big changes

December 3, 2018

As a lifelong civil servant and law enforcement officer, I was on the “tough on crime” bandwagon. I understood the mindset of “lock them up and make them serve the time” as the public became aggravated at seeing convicted felons walk free after serving a small part of their sentence.

But after serving as Wisconsin’s corrections secretary, my views have changed.

What I found when I entered into my position was a bloated prison population that was exasperated by truth-in-sentencing laws passed in the 1990s, when “tough on crime” was the buzz phrase du jour. Unfortunately, nobody took the time to do the math on what the consequences would be two decades later.

In Wisconsin, more than 1,000 inmates are 60 years old or older, and the state is now forced to deal with the potential of building a geriatric prison. Inmates also have no opportunity for reduced prison time in recognition of exemplary behavior, which in turn creates more difficult and potentially perilous working conditions for the brave men and women who serve in the prisons.

I had the opportunity to listen to neoconservative Grover Norquist when he was in Madison to discuss the problems with tough-on-crime legislation. After his speech, we met privately. He told me I needed to convince Gov. Scott Walker that this stuff doesn’t work. He said even Texas understands it, and Texas is a lot further right than Wisconsin.

Norquist was right, but the reality was we had a governor who would not change his views.

The time has come for Wisconsin to look at the opportunities for corrections reforms. Instead of treating corrections as a warehousing problem that results in building more prisons, we need to look at it as a social issue and address the many mitigating factors that lead people to commit crimes.

Yes, 67 percent of inmates have a violent crime in their record, but that is only part of the story. Substance abuse, mental illness and childhood trauma often underlie their criminal convictions. Finding effective methods of working with those challenges can have a dramatic effect on crime and punishment.

Our state needs to continue to dramatically reduce solitary confinement. The use of segregation is often overused to control inmates and tends to become the go-to response for any interaction that aggravates someone. But studies show the psychological damage caused by long stays in segregation only serve to make more dangerous inmates and increased threats to our officers.

We also need to address the endless cycle of probation revocations when no new crime is committed. Revocation for simple technical violations or stumbles on the road to sobriety do not have to end up with revocation and re-incarceration. Many of these instances can be handled with treatment and sanctions in the community that don’t result in losing employment, housing and support networks. The state re-incarcerates thousands of people on probation every year, and that number can be responsibly lowered through effective probation and parole revocation protocols that focus on offender success rather than punishment alone.

Our juvenile corrections system is fortunately heading in the right direction after the long, drawn-out investigation of the Lincoln Hills juvenile prison in northern Wisconsin. The prison still sits in limbo after four years. Moving to Missouri’s model of juvenile incarceration is what we recommended to the administration over three years ago.

It was unfortunate it took the largest lawsuit settlement in state history and an election to finally get some of the issues involving juvenile justice addressed. Now we have to follow through with broader understandings of trauma-informed care and make sure it is embraced throughout the juvenile justice system.

Do we need to build new prisons in Wisconsin? Yes, but not to house more inmates. We need to look at replacing antiquated institutions that force the state to pour millions of dollars per year into facilities that are more than 100 years old just to keep them running.

When I was at corrections, we presented a plan to build a large campus with multiple levels of security in one location. It would offer centralized health, psychiatric and geriatric care with a work release center and technical training for inmates preparing for release. The projected savings on that plan would have been $500 million over 15 years and allowed the state to close multiple inefficient institutions.

Of primary importance, we have to address the chronic shortage of correctional officers who are being worked beyond reason with forced overtime because of hundreds of vacancies across the state. A recent news article in Green Bay highlighted that, one year after completing their training at an academy, half of new correctional officers left the job due to poor pay, forced overtime and safety concerns.

We need to compensate those officers fairly and work to create a wage scale that allows them to support their families. They do a job that others would never undertake, in a place where most people would be afraid to go and deal with the potential for crisis every minute of the day.

Much has been made in the media about objectives to cut the prison population in half in two years. Can it be done? Realistically and logistically, no. It would require legislative changes, a recalculation of thousands of sentences, accelerated programming requirements and other issues to preserve the safety of our communities. But cutting the prison population in half would be a great target to work toward.

The Department of Corrections doesn’t control the front door or the exit in the prison system. Those are controlled for the most part by the Legislature. It will take a concerted, bipartisan effort to make substantive and lasting changes in our state’s correctional system, but it must be a priority.

Ninety-five percent of incarcerated people will return to society. So the simple question is: What kind of person would you want to live next door to you?

With a new governor and hopes for bipartisan collaboration, correction reforms can happen. It will take an honest assessment of what can be done better and what shouldn’t be done at all. Because corrections has the largest cabinet agency budget, the incentive should be there for all sides of the political spectrum to come together and work toward better outcomes for taxpayers, offenders and our society as a whole.

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