Though Governor Scott Walker was an advocate for private prisons as a state legislator in the 1990s, no member of his administration has broached the topic publicly since he’s been governor.
Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher, however, recently told the State Assembly Committee on Corrections that he would consider the use of for-profit prisons to deal with inmate overcrowding, according to State Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), who was present at the meeting.
“We are going to get inmates on the new drunk driving legislation,” Goyke said, referring to newly-enacted laws that include stiffer sentences for repeat-offender drunk drivers. “That will explode the prison population. So I was asking the Secretary how we will house them. Right now we house extra inmates in county jails. What will we do when the jails are all full? That was my question to the Secretary that prompted him to use the word privatization. He had a total ‘oops’ moment. The whole room fell silent when he said that.”
DOC spokesperson Tristan Cook explained that Litscher’s comments were strictly a hypothetical exercise intended to explore options if prison overcrowding persists in Wisconsin.
“The use of private prisons would be a very last resort when DOC has exhausted all other options,” Cook told Madison365. “There are a number of additional measures remaining that DOC can utilize to increase inmate capacity without utilizing private prisons, which include increasing usage of available space in Wisconsin county jails.”
Wisconsin law currently prohibits private prisons in the state, but about 5,000 inmates were shipped to private prisons in Oklahoma, Minnesota and Tennessee from 1998 until the early 2000s at a cost of $45 million. Walker’s Republican Party controls both houses of the state legislature, which could vote to legalize private prisons in the state. An effort to do just that, championed by then-Representative Walker, was turned back in the 1990s, largely due to pressure from public-sector labor groups — the very groups Walker’s Act 10 decimated in 2011.
Goyke said he does not think any new legislation allowing private prisons would pass the legislature.
Litscher’s apparent willingness to consider private prisons to alleviate overcrowding comes amid a number of administration policies that virtually ensure prisons will remain overcrowded.
For example, Governor Walker effectively gutted the Wisconsin Parole Board several weeks ago. The Parole Board was reduced to one worker to handle all parole decisions statewide, which will slow the parole process. Additionally, many of the state’s 22,500 inmates will never even be eligible for parole thanks to so-called “truth in sentencing” legislation, championed by then-Representative Walker, that eliminates the possibility of parole for anyone sentenced after the year 2000.
As a result, prison releases have slowed to a trickle. Only 32 percent of the overall prison population under Governor Walker has been released, which is down from 45 percent of the prison population released in the same period of years since before he was Governor, according to a Madison365 analysis of Department of Corrections statistics.
With next to zero resources being devoted to the release of eligible inmates, Wisconsin residents should fully expect to have the prison overcrowding problem persist.
Since Governor Walker took office, only 39 percent of inmates admitted to prison were there because of new crimes that had been committed, while over 60 percent of the inmates admitted were there for revocation of probation or parole with no new crimes having been committed, according to a Madison365 analysis of Department of Corrections statistics.
Under Governor Walker, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections is manufacturing the overcrowding that exists in State institutions. It is not a wave of new crime creating the overcrowding.
Which brings us back to Secretary Litscher. Wisconsin already uses county jails and smaller correctional facilities to house inmates sentenced to state prisons. Those facilities and jails are, in many cases, facing their own overcrowding and do not have the capacity to house a large influx of state prisoners.
The last resort Litscher’s spokesman referred to might be near. To privatize prisons would provide the State of Wisconsin with cheap facilities to house inmates and massive bottom lines for the companies contracted to do so.
Companies like CoreCivic sign contracts with states to build cheap prisons quickly and fill them up with inmates to relieve overcrowding. But these corporations also require that the state maintain a steady stream of inmates.
Most private facilities house around 1000 inmates, and the state would be required to provide at least 900 inmates to keep those facilities open.
Private prison companies are billion dollar entities who make massive political donations during elections. CoreCivic, a company Wisconsin could use to build private prisons were heavy contributors to the Trump for President campaign. Additionally, Corrections Corporation of America, which operated the out-of-state prisons Wisconsin contracted with, has made significant contributions to Walker’s campaigns over the years.
Cook insists that Secretary Litscher and the Department of Corrections are not focused on driving up the levels of inmates but rather helping ensure public safety and that inmates are properly treated.
“Ultimately, Secretary Litscher’s focus is on providing effective education, treatment, and programming inside DOC facilities so inmates release into the community with the skills needed to be successful,” Cook said.
Goyke said rather than increasing prison space, the state should look at decreasing the number of inmates.
“I am working on bills currently aimed to directly cut the prison population,” Goyke said. “Reform that reduces the level of intake into prisons is the discussion we need to have rather than privatization. Reform on the front end that provides the DOC with more rehabilitative options is what we need. The DOC needs more input on who comes into the system.”
This piece was produced by a student reporter in the Madison365 Academy. To learn more and support our education programs, visit madison365.org/academy.