Report calls for prison changes

  • Recent assessments of Wisconsin's correctional facilities suggest the state spend roughly $1.2 billion in the next decade to update facilities.
  • The prison system is already holding 700,000 more inmates than they are capable of holding.
  • The Department of Corrections is discussing alternatives to the plan in conjunction with the Committee on Justice Reinvestment Initiative Oversight.

In compliance with state law, Wisconsin's correctional facilities recently concluded assessments to determine what improvements are necessary to the state's prison system.

The resulting proposal is called the Ten-Year Facility Development Plan and it states that Wisconsin needs to spend roughly $1.2 billion over the next ten years on the improvement of facility conditions.

The price of these improvements has sparked concern among some citizens. The main concerns include the state's current deficit and the high rates of incarceration in Wisconsin, coupled with extreme over-crowding.

The Mead & Hunt Firm, an independent agency, issued the inspections and the overall analysis of Wisconsin's correctional facilities. The report considers data such as inmate populations, crime rates, future anticipations of crime and the facilities themselves.

Wisconsin's Department of Corrections is currently in the process of reviewing the report before any improvement plans are approved.

John Dipko, public information director for the DOC, said the plan suggests that existing facilities may need to expand to accommodate the projected demand for prison capacity in the future.

However, Dipko said the DOC feels the state needs to develop alternate forms of criminal punishment. He said the DOC is working with the Special Committee on Justice Reinvestment Initiative Oversight, chaired by Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), on alternate proposals.

"The DOC has received positive feedback in its efforts to look beyond prison construction in order to manage the inmate population while still keeping Wisconsin safe," Dipko said.

Eric Peterson, Taylor's chief of staff, said Wisconsin is already spending a large amount of money on the prison system.

"For every dollar that Wisconsin puts into public education, it puts 78 cents into the prison system," Peterson said. "Minnesota is a comparable neighbor, and only spends 17 cents per dollar."

"The committee seeks to help rehabilitate inmates once released from jail," Peterson said. "Most inmates have not even committed violent crimes."

He said most inmates are serving time for violations of parole or probation, and that is mostly because so little money is spent on community corrections.

He said Wisconsin correctional facilities are currently over-crowded by a total of 700,000 inmates.

Most folks are taken back by the price of the proposal, and by the number of prisons it suggests is necessary to develop adequate facilities, Peterson said.

"Ultimately, most people want to cut down on funding the prison system so we can spend the money on things like education or community corrections," he said.

Richard Jones, chair and associate professor of social and cultural sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences, noted another statistic demonstrating the comparatively high incarceration rate in Wisconsin.

"The crime rates of Wisconsin and Minnesota are relatively similar, however Wisconsin incarcerates two to three times as many people as Minnesota," Jones said.

The state is spending fewer dollars on rehabilitation than it did in the past, inmates tend to be serving longer sentences, and roughly two-thirds of inmates recidivate, Jones said.

"Newer efforts to control the criminal population make it more likely for a prisoner to recidivate for a technical violation such as failure to report or a failed urine test," Jones said.

Jones said he is not a big fan of the conclusions drawn from the report, as there is no evidence that incarceration at the current level has made Wisconsin any safer.