The explosion of the United States’ prison population – and the cost that has had on the American taxpayer – is well-documented. Right here in Wisconsin, the prison population 50 years ago was at 2,500. Today, it’s a whopping 22,000. However, during a time when many states are reforming their broken criminal justice systems and closing down unneeded or unsafe prisons, the Wisconsin Legislature recently voted to build a new prison.

That bill – AB54 – passed through the state Assembly and is on to the Senate, but it is not sitting well with a lot of people, Frank Davis among them, who calls it “reckless spending.”

“We want to bring attention to this at the Capitol. People need to know what’s happening,” Davis tells Madison365. “When everybody else in the country is going away from spending more money, opening up more prisons and locking more people up, and going towards treatment and a more mentally healthy way of dealing with people going in and out of the prison system, Wisconsin seems to want to go backwards and open up more prisons and lock more people up.”

Davis is a community organizer for MOSES, an interfaith organization that unites congregations to build a better community and takes action on issues of social justice, such as over-incarceration in Wisconsin. MOSES is part of a powerful statewide organization called WISDOM.

MOSES, WISDOM and the ACLU will be hosting a rally against the planned prison expansion at the state Capitol building on Tuesday, March 13. Davis says the plan is to meet at Grace Episcopal Church, 116 W Washington Ave. at 9 a.m. and that the itinerary for the day – along with the rally – includes speaking with state senators.

On Feb. 22, the State Assembly passed an amended version of Senate Bill 54, which mandated that the Department of Corrections recommend revocation if a person on probation, extended supervision, or parole is alleged to commit any felony or violent misdemeanor. Davis says that this bill will cripple Wisconsin’s already overcrowded prison system and, worse, be extremely costly to taxpayers.

“This increase will put an extra 2,000 more people in the system,” Davis says. “When they ended up doing the numbers, they found that they were going to have a problem. So the assembly tossed into the bill $350 million for them to build a new prison and more than $50 million for annual spending to run it. Everybody knows that that number will increase as time goes by.

“It’s a loan that will basically go on to our kids and our grandkids and they are going to have to pay for it,” Davis adds.

The bill as amended now heads back to the State Senate. The Senate must agree on the changes made in the Assembly. “The Assembly threw it in there and they aren’t coming back,” Davis says. “It’s all up to the Senate where they will vote on it on March 20.

“This is what the rally is all about,” he adds. “One, we don’t need it. Two, there are other alternatives to sending people to prison when we talk about these low-level rule violations. There are treatment alternatives, alternatives to revocation (ATR). There are many different things that can be done to increase safety. To build a new prison is very fiscally irresponsible.”

Frank Davis

Davis says that Wisconsin already spends billions of dollars on a failed system of imprisonment that does not address the root cause of systematic problems. Other states, he says, have gotten smarter.

“In Minnesota, they changed the way they do treatment and prison. Minnesota is a very similar state as Wisconsin demographically. In Minnesota, they twisted it,” Davis says. “They started to work on treatment and started giving people incentive and they don’t take people’s street time like they do in Wisconsin.”

Taking their street time?

“In Wisconsin, say you are out here and you have 5 years of parole and you’re out here for four years and you have a year left and let’s say they revocate you for breaking a rule like you got a job but you didn’t get permission to get it,” Davis says. “All of a sudden they revocate you and send you back to prison for 6 months; they can take those whole four years that you had already been on parole. When you get out, you’d think you’d have 6 months parole left but you’d have that plus the four years you already did for street time.

“In Wisconsin, you can get three years of probation and it can take you 10-15 years to finish it,” he adds.

Frank Davis speaks at a press conference at the Wisconsin Capitol on March 30, 2017.
(Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)

The most disturbing part of the mass incarceration for Davis, are the tremendous racial disparites that he says are hardly a function of crime. Over the past quarter-century, for example, United States incarceration rates have almost doubled, while crime rates have been cut in half.

“We all know what the racial disparities are in Wisconsin where we get the raw end of the deal,” Davis says. “Let’s say we have a new prison that they are going to open up. They haven’t dealt with the racial disparities that we already have. Another prison opening up will basically exacerbate the issue because now we have a prison that they need to fill. If they need to fill it, that means that there will be more minorities getting locked up.

“There’s no incentive now to pursue treatment avenues. There’s no reason to worry about parole. There’s no reason to think about APR or any other treatment needs that a person has as opposed to sending them to prison,” he adds. “Now, more than ever, it will be like, ‘We’ve got the space. We’ve got the room. There’s no pressure for me not to send you back to prison.’”

Prisons are big money makers.

“They are talking about having the private prison companies come in and build the prison and then lease it to Wisconsin,” Davis says. “This doesn’t really benefit anybody … unless you have stock [in the private prisons].”

Davis says there are three simple things we can do to save taxpayers money and to save lives: expand approaches that have proven track records for keeping people out of prison; reduce the number of prison admissions that don’t involve new convictions; and reduce recidivism by removing barriers to employment.

“That’s what Tuesday’s rally is all about – we’re spending our tax money to make things worse right now,” Davis says. “With this rally, we really want to get people out there to inform them. A lot of people don’t even know that stuff like this happens with nobody even paying attention. Just like how the Assembly tossed this bill out and left. There’s nobody there to question them.

“This rally is about making sure that people are informed so they know this is happening and we want them to call their senators – whether they are a Democrat or a Republican – and implore them to vote against this and let them know that we as citizens are standing together and we are not going to take this,” Davis adds.

The State Senate has announced that it will meet on Tuesday, March 20, which will be the only floor session before the entire Legislature recesses for the electoral year.