By Devin Blake
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Some advocates and families are asking Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers to deploy the Wisconsin National Guard in prisons throughout the state to relieve chronic staffing shortages.
According to the most recent data from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, the vacancy rate for correctional officers and sergeants for adult facilities in the state is roughly 29%.
Some advocates say that the vacancy rate has created problems for those who are incarcerated.
Prisoners, for example, have reported bird droppings on food trays, reduced access to showers and insufficient medical care, among other issues, according to a New York Times article.
In addition, a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners at Waupun Correctional Institution said that prisoners are routinely confined to their cells for up to 24 hours a day.
The suit alleged they are not provided with regular services and programming, including family visits, religious services and educational resources.
This degree of confinement is often referred to as a “lockdown” by prisoners and their advocates, but the Department of Corrections refers to the practice as “modified movement.”
Tommie Carter, who is incarcerated at Waupun, described potentially fatal consequences of such a practice.
“There are prisoners who have a long history of life-threatening suicide attempts, including myself, and serious mental illness,” Carter said in an email to NNS. “They are prone to psychological breakdowns when stress and trauma become severe … .”
In recent years, Evers has deployed the National Guard in different parts of the state in response to the coronavirus outbreak, floods and wildfires.
Although there is no consensus, those in favor of using the National Guard say that what is happening inside state prisons is as serious as these emergencies.
If the National Guard was activated, it could be inside prisons within 48 to 72 hours, Keith Peter, director of public affairs for the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, said in an email.
‘Always ready to work’
Although the National Guard is “always ready to work” with its “partners across Wisconsin in state and local government,” the governor has not requested help with staffing issues in state prisons, Peter said.
Evers’ office did not respond to requests for comment, but on Nov. 14, his office released a news release stating that staff vacancies at Waupun and Green Bay correctional institutions contribute to challenges maintaining “safety within the institutions for members of the public, staff and population of the facilities under normal operations.”
The most recent data from the Department of Corrections shows that both Waupun and Green Bay vacancy rates for correctional officer and sergeant positions are well over the statewide average, with rates of roughly 53% and roughly 40%, respectively.
A major strategy of the Evers administration to deal with these vacancies, said the release, was to secure pay raises for correctional officers.
At the beginning of the Evers administration, the starting wage for correctional officers was $16.65 per hour, and now it is $33 per hour, according to the release.
This new starting wage is more than 20% higher than the national average hourly wage of $26.33 for correctional officers and jailers, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The news release added that the Department of Corrections “is already seeing the benefits” from the pay raise, and that “applications for security positions have increased and training class sizes continue to grow.”
Department of Corrections has not sought Guard help
Although governors can activate their state’s National Guard, local authorities also can request assistance.
The Department of Corrections is not, however, seeking support from the National Guard at this time, Kevin Hoffman, deputy director of communications for the department, said in an email.
Rather, Hoffman added, the pay increases have made the department “hopeful” that it can better attract and retain staff.
According to Evers’ news release, the Department of Corrections also is working toward restoring regular programming and services.
For example, Waupun “has been able to increase … work assignments in food service, health services, laundry, law library, restricted housing unit, sanitation, social services and housing units,” according to the news release.
But there have been subsequent reports that restrictions have not been changed or have not been changed to the extent stated by the news release.
One such report, from the attorney working on behalf of prisoners at Waupun, said those incarcerated are still excessively confined to their cells and are limited to one shower and one hour of recreation a week.
Although Evers’ office did not respond to requests for comment about these allegations, Hoffman said the attorney’s claims are consistent with statements made in the news release, which said that “rules related to visitation, personal hygiene frequency and recreation time remain suspended … .”
A push for long-term solutions
Others stress that this issue goes beyond deploying the National Guard in prisons.
“If Wisconsin policymakers began to immediately enact common sense policies to reduce the prison population, there would be no need to use the National Guard,” said Mark Rice, Wisconsin transformational justice campaign coordinator at WISDOM.
“Wisconsin could then close several prisons and redirect resources to build safer, stronger and healthier communities,” Rice said.
WISDOM is a statewide faith-based social justice organization that helped arrange a news conference in October outside the Wisconsin State Capitol to highlight the plight of prisoners.
Some policymakers agree more needs to be done.
On Nov. 2, Wisconsin Democrats released information on a package of 17 bills aimed at prison and jail reform.
“Many of our prisons are over their designed capacity,” said Rep. Darrin Madison (D-Milwaukee), adding that the deployment of the National Guard to prisons would help only in the short term.
One of the bills calls for more transparency and oversight regarding solitary confinement and lockdowns.
The bill requires that the Department of Corrections provide publicly available, real-time data about changes to a prisoner’s confinement as well as their ability to have visitors and communicate.
The bill also calls for a notification system for families of prisoners after these changes occur.
“Families, loved ones and other visitors of people who are currently incarcerated are left in the dark regarding the movements of their loved ones and conditions in prisons overall,” Madison said. “Our office gets dozens of letters a month from families unaware if their incarcerated family member is OK.”
Devin Blake is the criminal justice reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. His position is funded by the Public Welfare Foundation, which plays no role in editorial decisions in the NNS newsroom.