As Wisconsin continues to explore the path forward toward criminal justice reform, the state’s oldest prison maintains a unique place in the debate. Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI), was built in 1854, when the first permanent structure of the prison was constructed. Some 954 people are currently incarcerated within its walls, which are designed to hold 882. Central to the debate over whether it’s time to close WCI is the prison’s role in the economy and identity of the surrounding communities.
During an Assembly corrections committee hearing in February, legislators found themselves at odds over a proposal to close WCI. Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) presented his hopes that the committee could work on a bipartisan basis to eventually close the prison. Rep. Shelia Stubbs (D-Madison) backed the idea. But Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), who chairs the committee, argued against the idea. Schraa described WCI as “really the essence of the city of Waupun.” He added that “the city of Waupun actually grew up around that facility. It wasn’t even a city, and Waupun was developed because of the prison.”
Bowen was not solely focused on closing WCI. “Even as I look at the local priorities in economic development,” he noted, “they don’t list correctional facilities, but they do list their interests in agriculture businesses. And maybe a partnership can be made there.” Schraa pressed Bowen to tour Waupun, stating, “I really would like you to see the amount of pride that is taken from the individuals that work there.”
Later, Bowen told Wisconsin Examiner that he didn’t mind the verbal sparring during the debate. “It can sometimes be hard to get legislators to see things from another district’s point of view, so I don’t mind at all. It’s healthy to have a debate,” he said. “I think there is a path forward for us to have a breakthrough. And to stop the stonewalling that has happened, that’s gotten in the way of some really big reforms. And closing Waupun, and re-developing the city of Waupun, may be a hurdle to get over, but we can do it.”
Contrary to Schraa’s comments, Bowen has been to the city of Waupun and the prison before. “I was able to connect with some of the people that are incarcerated there,” he said. “And get to know them on a human level. Not just this perspective that they are spoken of in terms of ‘inmates,’ I don’t use that term. These are people who are in the care of the state … I look forward to another chance to go there and connect with more people in our system. People who work there, and folks who are incarcerated, too.”
Waupun’s mayor Julie Nickle sees the value in making the city less dependent on the prison, although she feels WCI should remain open. “There has always been a discussion regarding closing the oldest prison in Wisconsin,” Nickle told Wisconsin Examiner, “and yet money continues to be poured into it to update and keep it operational. Every three months the Department of Corrections holds a meeting with city officials, state representatives and businesses to discuss DOC happenings. It is extremely important that the city of Waupun keep the line of communication open with the DOC as we need to continue to update our plans for future land and resource uses.”
Mayor Nickel added that, “the city also wants to keep the prison open as a lot of the employees live within and around the city. Our businesses also appreciate the money that visitors bring to the city. Unfortunately, due to COVID, inmate visiting has been suspended and it has taken a toll on our small businesses.”
As with cities and states nationwide, Waupun faced heavy economic challenges during the pandemic. An annual summer event “Celebrate Waupun” was cancelled, though city facilities re-opened in late May 2020. The reopening was part of a new phase of local COVID policies. After Celebrate Waupun was cancelled Nickle said she hoped “everyone focuses on helping their fellow citizens in order to strengthen our community once this pandemic passes.”
While the city dealt with the pandemic on the outside, WCI battled spreading infections on the inside. Between early August and mid-November, WCI experienced a massive surge of positive tests among incarcerated individuals. Numbers rose from 228 positive tests between Aug. 1-Oct. 1, to nearly 700 by Nov. 13.
Men incarcerated in the facility reached out to press and loved ones to share their concerns and experiences. That is, until they were put into quarantine for either being exposed to someone with a positive test, or after showing symptoms. In December 2020, the DOC closed a cell hall within WCI which helped reduce the overall population. The department, however, insisted that the closure had nothing to do with COVID-19.
If the prison were to continue downsizing, surrounding communities might also need to adjust their economic environments. Bowen noted that other rural communities are also going through similar phases of re-defining themselves.
“I think there are a number of rural communities that are trying to focus on a 21st century economy that is shifting from where it used to be,” said Bowen, again stressing the importance of agriculture to the area around Waupun. “The demands are continuing to increase, and it creates opportunities for communities like Waupun to let go of the things that they were just used to. They were used to a facility employing 200 people as a prison.”
Additionally, Bowen also noted a need for more housing in Waupun as it continues to develop economically. “People are moving to the city of Waupun, and the city of Waupun does not have enough housing that is affordable and quality for people to move there. This property [WCI] could be bulldozed and built with brand new housing, brand new development. There’s no real reason to continue the trend of just doing things because we’ve always done them. Rather than embracing what it would look like with new growth, new housing, new tax base.”
Nickel noted the place agricultural business has in the identity of the city of Waupun. In her eyes, the community’s identity shouldn’t and isn’t solely dependent on the presence of WCI. “Waupun has worked with several agricultural companies as part of our brand,” said Nickle. “We cannot be termed ‘prison city’ anymore as we need to diversify our economic broad base. Hopefully with COVID coming under control we will see more businesses reach out and want to come to Waupun.”