A cell measuring eight feet by six feet with a sink, a toilet and a small desk.
That is the reality for many inmates in Wisconsin prisons, including former inmate and University of Wisconsin alumnus Derek Hansen.
But it was not just Hansen in that eight by six cell. Due to overcrowding in Wisconsin prisons, Hansen had to share that space with another inmate.
“At Dodge, which is the intake prison, it was so overcrowded that they would add what they euphemistically called boats — a plastic coffin that can hold a thin mattress and have a third person sleep on the floor,” Hansen said.
Hansen was originally sentenced to five years in prison, but he ended up serving three additional years for two parole violations. This is partially due to the policy of crimeless revocation, mandating the re-incarceration of those who violate the terms of their parole but do not commit a new crime.
In Wisconsin, stories like Hansen’s are all too common. In a state with a prison capacity of just over 17,000, correctional facilities maintain an incarcerated population of 23,704, straining resources and funding in the process.
In the crosshairs of the debates over criminal justice and prison reform are the prisoners themselves, leaving cells overcrowded and Wisconsin taxpayers footing the bill.
Wisconsin prisons by the numbers
Wisconsin allocated $2.43 billion to the Department of Corrections in the 2017-19 budget, while that same budget allocated only $2.14 billion to the University of Wisconsin system after years of funding cuts and tuition freezes.
This is not the first time Wisconsin has spent more on prisons than the UW system, however. Spending on prisons exceeded that of the UW System in the 2011-13 budget as well, when $2.25 billion was allocated to the Department of Corrections and $2.1 billion to the UW System.
Expanding beyond intra-state institutions, correctional spending in Wisconsin is comparatively higher than national numbers. According to the Wisconsin Budget Project, the state spent $267 on corrections per state resident in fiscal year 2015, while the national average is $239. This kind of spending is not the norm even among midwestern states. Illinois spends $175, Minnesota spends $172 and Iowa spends $152.
Though the state has steadily increased spending on the DOC, Wisconsin prisons are still over capacity. Of the state’s 32 adult institutions, only the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility and Sturtevant are not over capacity.
Still, UW law professor Kenneth Streit said capacity assumes no double celling, which places two inmates per cell, although Streit said prisons do avoid double bunking in segregation and mental health units. Individual prisons are responsible for setting their own capacities.
Streit further explained that when federal and state legislatures determine corrections budgets, they assume there will be double bunking in around one-third of the cells in an effort to keep the cost per inmate down. This means that prisons receive insufficient funding to fully accommodate the over-capacity facilities.
“It takes roughly the same number of staff to operate a prison at 100 percent as at 133 percent. If Wisconsin’s [incarcerated] population dropped to [capacity], DOC would need to close about 20 to 25 percent of its prisons,” Streit said, because it would alter how lawmakers determined funding for correctional facilities.
This issue of overcrowding in state correctional facilities has raised a debate over whether criminal justice reform is necessary. Two prominent voices at the center of the debate this year are incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, R, and state Education Superintendent Tony Evers, his Democratic challenger.
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What are the candidates planning to do?
In a gubernatorial race that leaves Walker trailing Evers, Walker has yet to say much about his plan for criminal justice reform in a state that spends more on its prisons than its higher education system. Walker’s campaign website does not mention criminal justice policies, while Evers’ campaign website mentions proposed reforms he would make to the system as governor.
Streit said the Truth in Sentencing law, authored primarily by Walker and passed by the state Legislature in the late 1990s, made it much harder for inmates to be granted parole. Around the same time, state Legislature also increased the maximum sentences for multiple crimes.
For measures like these, Streit said the state Legislature can “look tough on crime without having to pay the cost” by not looking at fiscal estimates on laws related to crime — an exception to the norm during lawmaking process.
“Although there is a requirement for a fiscal estimate for all other types of legislation, legislators specifically excluded crime-related legislation from fiscal estimates,” Streit said. “Later, when the prison populations increased, the legislators decided to build more prisons rather than look soft on crime.”
In an Aug. 7 news conference, Walker said he sees “no value” in visiting prisons in Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Evers has outlined a plan to reduce the prison population through ending crimeless revocations, eliminating mandatory minimums and invest in drug courts, treatment and diversions programs and restorative justice strategies — actions which would experts believe could reduce Wisconsin’s prison population by as much as 50 percent.
But in an email to The Badger Herald, Walker campaign spokesman Austin Altenburg claims Evers’ plan would release dangerous criminals back into Wisconsin communities.
“Scott Walker remains focused on keeping our communities safe — which he considers a primary role of government — in a way that is accountable to the public and cost-effective for taxpayers,” Altenburg said.
Walker recently aired an advertisement condemning a goal expressed by many of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates — reducing the Wisconsin prison population.
He has denounced Evers’ plan because 67 percent of current inmates are violent offenders. Walker claims that if the prison population is to be halved immediately, at least 17 percent of people released from prison would be violent offenders — but independent fact-checkers have not determined this claim to be entirely true.
In an email to The Badger Herald, Evers clarified that his goal is to reduce the population of non-violent offenders over time, like former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. He said he does not support the release of violent criminals.
“The bottom line is that we need to invest in people, not prisons,” Evers said.
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Programs already in action
While politicians wage rhetorical wars, there are current programs in place working to reduce recidivism, and in turn the prison population. They often attempt to mend the relationship between the offender and the community.
For example, the UW law school has the Restorative Justice Project, which aims to facilitate reconciliation between victims and offenders. The program aims to help the offender understand the harmful impact of their crime on the victim, community and themselves, which works to reduce recidivism.
RJP has a victim-offender dialogue program which provides an environment for the victim and offender to meet in a structured setting and discuss the impact of the crime on their lives.
“Restorative justice practices work to address the dehumanization frequently experienced by people in the traditional criminal justice system,” according to RJP’s website. “Instead of viewing a criminal act as simply a violation of a rule or statute, restorative justice sees this action as a violation of people and relationships.”
Dane County Community Restorative Courts also attempt to repair the harm caused by crime in the Madison area. Helmed by coordinator Ron Johnson, DCCRC works with community stakeholders, including victims, offenders and residents, to bring harmony to neighborhoods affected by crime.
“When a case is settled through restorative justice, it is less likely … that the person will reoffend,” Johnson said. “And [if] they do reoffend, it’s usually a lesser charge. So in a macro sense, we are a prevention program that helps to prevent people from going down that slippery slope.”
In the future, Johnson hopes DCCRC will further prevent recidivism by expanding the types of crimes and cases they work with. He also hopes to work with people of other ages, as they currently work only with 17-25 year olds.
Inside the prisons, Walker has provided $1 million in additional funding in the 2017-19 budget for vocational training programs and technical college training to rehabilitate offenders. Walker also hopes to provide post-release assistance for 12 months to help former inmates find jobs.
“While still incarcerated, inmates participate in programming including cognitive intervention, general work skills and expectations, financial literacy, community resources, job seeking, applications and resumes,” the budget said.
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Streit said the most important tool Wisconsin could use in their criminal justice system is reliable supervision for probation and parole. He also said these programs should also include mental health and addiction treatments without a waiting list.
Streit estimated the state could drop its prison population by about 12,000-13,000, or about five percent per year over the next ten years.
Another option is to allow judges to use indeterminate sentencing in the hopes that prison will rehabilitate people, Streit said. Indeterminate sentencing occurs when a judge decides a sentence will consist of a range of years. During this time period, the state parole board has the ability to determine if the convicted person is eligible for parole.
This lies in contrast to the current system, which Streit said relies on determinate sentencing or “truth in sentencing.” This mandates that no matter what the person does in prison, such as completion of programs, they will not be let out even a day earlier.
Whatever policies end up being implemented, the issue of criminal justice reform is on the minds of Wisconsin voters now more than in recent elections, according to polls from recent election cycles. In a Marquette poll in August, 14 percent of respondents said criminal justice reform and prisons are their first or second most important issue. In past polls, the issue has not been as clearly highlighted.
Going forward, Wisconsin could take several routes to reduce the prison population and, in turn, associated costs. But the fate of the state’s prisons and its inmates lies largely in the hands of the next governor.