Wisconsin Democrats introduce prison reform package as lockdowns proliferate

Democratic lawmakers introduced a sweeping legislative package Thursday to address deteriorating conditions in Wisconsin prisons as a chronic staffing shortage has led to months-long lockdowns and a federal lawsuit.

The state’s perennially overcrowded prison system has been grappling with a lack of staffing that has only grown worse in recent years. The state’s adult institutions are currently dealing with an overall 32.3% vacancy rate, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“We are here today because conditions are dire in our institutions,” Rep. Ryan Clancy of Milwaukee said at a news conference. “This package is a crime reduction package. When we are less cruel to those we incarcerate, those people are less likely to be incarcerated in the future.”

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The legislation includes proposals that would require inmates get hot showers, weekly in-person visits, and recreational opportunities. Other bills in the package would mandate cells be kept at tolerable temperatures and that prisoners be allowed to at least view the outdoors for several hours daily.

But the package doesn’t address staffing and the bills don’t explain how the mandates would be met without more guards.

Republicans who control the state Assembly and Senate didn’t respond to messages Thursday inquiring about the bills’ chances. GOP lawmakers have introduced almost nothing dealing with prison staffing or conditions this session. The only notable proposal would create a work program for inmates approaching their release date and that bill hasn’t gotten a hearing.

The state budget Democratic Gov. Tony Evers signed in July bumped guards’ starting pay from $20.29 to $33 an hour, but it has made little difference. The lack of staffing has become so severe that prisons in Waupun, Green Bay and Stanley have implemented lockdowns in which prisoners are confined to their cells for nearly 24 hours a day, according to inmate advocates.

Waupun’s lockdown began in March; Green Bay’s began in June; Stanley’s lockdown began in early 2023, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Corrections officials have labeled the lockdowns as “modified movement.”

At least three inmates at Waupun have died over the last four months. One death was confirmed as a suicide. The other two deaths remain under investigation.

A group of Waupun inmates filed a federal lawsuit in Milwaukee last week alleging conditions at that prison amount to cruel and unusual punishment. The prisoners allege they can’t get access to health care, with guards telling them their illnesses are “all in your head” and they should “pray” for a cure. They also maintain that they’re allowed only one shower per week, they receive no educational programming, aren’t allowed in-person visits with their families and that the prison is infested with rats and roaches.

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The governor told the Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that his administration is “working on this every single day” but the problems stem from lack of staffing.

“It’s a people issue,” he said.

Corrections spokesman Kevin Hoffman said in an email to The Associated Press that the agency has been working with Democrats to craft legislation but hasn’t seen final versions of the bills yet. He disagreed with the term “lockdown,” saying under a lockdown all movement would stop. Inmate activities at Waupun and Green Bay are simply taking place “less frequently or with fewer numbers,” he said. He did not address conditions at Stanley.

Hoffman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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