WISDOM Wisconsin Director of Prison Outreach James Wilbur speaks to protesters rallying against lockdowns at two state prisons. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
A few dozen people gathered outside the Wisconsin Department of Corrections offices in Madison on Wednesday to protest ongoing lockdowns at state prisons in Green Bay and Waupun.
The group, made up of activists, formerly incarcerated people and family members of people who have been incarcerated, argued that proposed solutions announced the day before by Gov. Tony Evers and DOC Secretary Kevin Carr weren’t enough to end the suffering caused by the lockdowns. Three people have died at Waupun Correctional Institution since the lockdown there began in March.
On Tuesday, Evers and Carr announced plans to move nearly a quarter of those held at Waupun to other facilities in the state. DOC officials have said the lockdowns restricting inmate movement were put in place because of overcrowding and a lack of staff.
Waupun is Wisconsin’s oldest prison, constructed in the 1850s, it has a designed capacity of 882. As of last week, it had a population of nearly 1,000. Also announced Tuesday were plans to conduct a study that will consider closing the prison, an aim to move Waupun to single-cell occupancy by March 1 and the loosening of some movement restrictions — though restrictions on visitation, “personal hygiene frequency” and recreation time will remain.
At Green Bay, where some of the restrictions had already been lifted, Evers and Carr announced the easing of those remaining limits but rules related to visitation and recreation time remain in place.
The pair also announced plans to update DOC policies for prison staff conducting rounds and emergency response so people in distress can be given aid faster and to restrict the use of solitary confinement.
“We’ve spent the last five years working to address the decade-long chronic staffing challenges we inherited at our correctional institutions because we want to ensure every person in these institutions is safe, whether they’re DOC employees or folks living in our care,” Evers said in a statement. We will continue to use every lever and option available to bolster staffing resources and address vacancy rates to ensure the safety of staff and people in our care while resuming critical programming.”
But for the protesters on Wednesday, those plans aren’t enough. They question the validity of the staffing shortage claims. They also point to a number of administrative actions Evers and the DOC could make to reduce the prison population — noting that reducing the state’s prison population was a major campaign promise when Evers first ran for office in 2018.
Additionally, the protesters pointed out that updates to the DOC’s “restrictive housing” policies, limiting the use of solitary confinement, especially for people with mental health concerns, were supposed to be implemented years ago.
The protesters said the DOC could release the approximately 5,000 people in state prisons for “crimeless” revocations of parole, release the people already assigned to work release, increase spending for treatment and diversion programs, expedite the process for releasing some elderly people and expand the already existing Earned Release Program.
“I am in frequent contact with thousands of men and women who are in the system, who are experiencing the torturous, inhumane and completely unacceptable conditions that we’re finding in the prisons in Wisconsin,” James Wilbur, the prison outreach director for prison advocacy organization WISDOM, said. “The governor and the Department of Corrections said five years ago they would diligently work to reduce the prison population … the Department of Corrections has consistently refused to implement those platforms.”
“The DOC continues to advance a relatively false narrative about the crisis they’re facing with staffing, about the resources they have available,” he continued. “Yet we know the Department of Corrections spends less than 3% of its biennial $1.6 billion budget to implement treatment and diversion programs. What’s the explanation for that?”
While the protesters on Wednesday were arguing that Evers and Carr hadn’t done enough to ease the suffering of people incarcerated at Green Bay and Waupun, Republican lawmakers were saying Evers was putting communities in danger by moving “dangerous felons” into other prisons. Rep. David Steffen (R-Howard) said in a statement that moving people out of Waupun would exacerbate overcrowding at other facilities but added that the governor should work to close and replace the nearly 200-year-old prison.
“Governor Evers’ decision to relocate dangerous felons to other facilities that are also understaffed, overcapacity, or both, simply puts more communities and more staff in danger,” Steffen said in a statement. “Addressing the population issue at Waupun by further exacerbating capacity issues at other facilities is not a solution. It’s time for Governor Evers to stop passing the buck and show leadership by closing and replacing our 19th century prisons.”
After rallying outside the massive Department of Corrections sign near East Washington Ave. in Madison, the crowd marched into the building, hoping to deliver a list of questions to DOC staff. Among the group were Brian Coombe, who had traveled with his daughter five hours from Superior to advocate for his incarcerated son, and Megan Kolb, the daughter of Dean Hoffman, the first person to die in DOC custody during the lockdown.
In the lobby, front desk staff repeatedly told protesters that nobody from the secretary’s office was available and nobody could come down to speak with them.
Correction: An initial version of this story stated that the three deaths at Waupun have been by suicide. Only one of the deaths is confirmed to be a suicide, the other two remain under investigation by the medical examiner and no cause of death has been determined.
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