Voice from the right: No new prison, so try reforms instead

By: - June 9, 2020 6:19 am
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One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as resulting unemployment, has been a drop in revenue and other fiscal woes that have hit every level of government, blowing giant holes in state and local budgets. 

The Badger Institute — a conservative think tank formerly known as the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute with the motto, Free markets ~ Opportunity ~ Prosperity — views the negative financial news as a nail in the coffin of the idea of building a new prison in Wisconsin right now. 

“Severe, impending budget woes brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, limited ability to borrow money and a prison population that will begin to rise again will soon bring Wisconsin’s long-simmering corrections dilemma to a head,” wrote Patrick Hughes,  a Badger Institute corrections consultant this month. 

“If new prison construction were ever a viable option for addressing longstanding overcrowding, fiscal woes arising from the pandemic make that increasingly untenable.”

Hughes served as assistant deputy secretary and a division administrator at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections under former Gov. Scott Walker.

The Badger Institute has found areas, including corrections reform, where its policy recommendations line up, at least in part, with liberals who do not see building new prisons as the right answer either. While the Badger Institute primarily focuses on the cost from a taxpayers’ vantage point, it points to a way two differing political views on corrections could lead to policy changes that might break the impasse of Wisconsin’s partisan divide.

Gridlock between the two parties led the Legislature to a stalemate on how to invest an originally projected budget surplus back in January. Later, both sides found themselves glad they had made no spending decisions when the surplus vanished in the pandemic.

Hughes said that projections, including one from Mead/Hunt that estimated the state could have 28,200 inmates in 10 years and a new 1,200-bed maximum security prison will cost approximately $500 million. Converting Lincoln Hills to a 575-inmate adult prison would cost $35 million just for construction. 

“Absent a reduction or reversal of the projected growth in new prisoners or finding someplace else to house them, the state will be forced to begin a large, expensive prison construction program — raising basic questions of how much it will cost and how it could be funded,” he writes.

Legislative Fiscal Bureau Director Bob Lang, in early May, sent a memo to legislators saying that tax collections in the month of April 2020, were $870 million below collections in April 2019. This was due to both the pandemic’s impact on  the state’s economy and tax collections, as well as the extended tax filing deadline through July 15. It is not yet clear how much of the drop can be attributed to either cause.


If projections of an additional 5,000 or more prisoners over the decade comes to pass, one new prison alone would not solve overcrowding issues without corrections reforms. This could be even further exacerbated if Republicans in the Legislature were able to pass their “Tougher on Crime” agenda in a way that could override the governor’s almost-certain veto. 

The Badger Institute conclusion is that now it’s more necessary than ever that the Corrections budget, which is the largest budget in state government, requires a meeting of the minds — even if the reasons behind the agreement are differing — on corrections reform. 

Funding even one prison will crowd out many of the state’s other needs,” wrote Hughes, “and still leave Wisconsin with overcrowded cells, too few institutions and ultimately substantially increased taxes — unless legislators, the governor and the DOC find a way to do what other states have done: responsibly decrease the number of inmates without imperiling safety.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin was the Wisconsin Examiner's founding Deputy Editor, serving from its launch July 1, 2019, until Feb. 1, 2022. She is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications before returning to journalism at the Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.