If Disneyland really aspires to be the “Happiest Place on Earth,” its marketing bigwigs would be hard-pressed to find a worthier counter-example on which to base their claim than Waupun. The self-promoted City of Sculpture is home to a plethora of Sconnie traditions, not least among which are the Horicon Wildlife Preserve, winding snowmobile trails and a massive prison complex. But in a state which spends $1.1 billion on putting its constituents perilously far away from the soap bar, what renders Waupun unique is the extremes to which it takes its hospitality.
After a recent lawsuit filed by two inmates of the prison’s segregation unit, Waupun’s administration was forced to amend its standing policy of running lights in the cells 24 hours a day, barring inmates from seeing the outdoors, and confining recreation to standing in small cages with all the familiar homeliness of dog kennels. In addition, the inmates of the segregation unit, who number 180, will receive the gratuitous luxury of basketballs and hacky sacks. In so doing, the Department of Corrections avoided a costly date in court, and managed to turn a case of pseudo-torture into a homespun adaptation of “He Got Game.”
And who knows? Waupun may even be able to maintain its well-earned reputation for having the highest suicide rate out of any state prison in Wisconsin.
Yet to hear the state’s prison system discussed among the pols responsible for it in the first place, Waupun and its peer institutions bear more similarity with a family trip to Orlando then a stint of hard time. As Isthmus blogger The Sconz noted several months ago, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett laments the pervasive role corrections has come to play in state budgeting, but goes on to point his finger at the “Cadillac” health care inmates receive, particularly with regards to sex-change operations. Apparently a $6.1 billion shortfall is much more trifling than it seems so long as inmate #108 doesn’t go around calling himself Susie.
Scott “trains are for pussies” Walker, Barrett’s Republican opponent, not only supported the truth in sentencing legislation credited with originally gutting the parole system, but he savaged recent plans to release well-behaved inmates early as a threat to communities and whined that reducing the prison budget was a mistake.
But if Joseph Stalin’s claim that gaiety was the Soviet Union’s most outstanding feature still holds currency, nothing gets a leader off like the classic deadpan falsehood. The continual tightening of state laws and the growing number of facilities themselves is a convenient method of pandering to a bloodthirsty electorate, but its effectiveness in preventing crime has been dubious. The manifold evils of ramping up incarceration are rendered all the more poignant because a hulking proportion of the crimes targeted — particularly those with regards to drugs — are nonviolent, ripping families apart and bankrupting the tax base in the process.
It’s not just that prisons have taken on the perverse “all comers welcome” mentality more common to a Motel Six than a supposedly conscientious part of the judicial system. The most cursory of glances at the state’s budget yields a picture of a drastic shift from a more rehabilitative strategy to the long dick of immediate retribution, regardless of who it helps. A wave of public hysteria over crime facilitated this, but even taking into account the national trend towards harsher enforcement, Wisconsin remains an outlier. Prison spending in the state now weighs in at a hefty 73 cents for every dollar spent on higher education. In the mid-1980’s the state only spent $130 million on its prisons. And while dollar expenditures on colleges has remained the same, the proportion of the UW-Madison budget that comes from the Legislature has declined to 18 percent, the lowest it has ever been.
Then again, if textbooks were Soviet propaganda in Jerry Falwell’s day, there’s little reason to think times have changed. Besides, when state aid to major universities is at an all-time low, predisposing ever more people to wind up in jail, the doors of Waupun Correctional are open 24 hours a day. And with all that new money, they might finally get that statue of Pol Pot they’ve been quietly deserving all these years.
Sam Clegg ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in economics.