The mess at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections – Isthmus

Tony Evers owns this. 

The governor has been in office five and a half years, so he can’t blame the mess at the Department of Corrections on the previous administration. And he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with blaming it on the Republican Legislature. This is about mismanagement at the top. 

Last week the Dodge County Sheriff filed charges against recently retired Waupun prison warden Randall Hepp and eight of his staff members in the deaths of two inmates. The allegations of abuse and neglect are startling. According to the complaint, one of the inmates begged for water, which was denied, and dehydration contributed to his death. Another lay dead in his cell for 12 hours before being found. But that appears to be just the tip of the iceberg with the families of other dead inmates calling for justice in their cases as well. In all, four inmates have died in the last year at Waupun. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are charges stemming from conditions at the Green Bay prison. 

It’s not surprising that Evers’ DOC chief, Kevin Carr, retired in March. When he did, Evers had this to say about him, “Kevin was one of the first people I interviewed when I began filling out my cabinet, and it was immediately clear to me Kevin would not only bring a wealth of experience in law enforcement to keeping people safe but that he would do so with an important appreciation for the power of redemption and rehabilitation.”

But Carr was running the department as all of these alleged atrocities were playing out at Waupun and Green Bay. In February 2023 a bipartisan group of local and state officials from Brown County sent Carr a letter calling for closing the prison there and outlining the problems. Of course, the deaths at Waupun and at Green Bay were well-documented as were the lockdowns that have been going on for more than a year. So, why did Evers heep such praise on Carr? It looks obvious that Carr was running a sinking ship and Evers was his boss. 

Last fall the Wisconsin State Journal ran a lengthy story detailing the serious problems at Green Bay. Carr didn’t respond to requests for comment on that story and he hasn’t appeared in any of the stories since the charges were filed last week at Waupun. While he may not be criminally liable for what happened, he and Evers need to answer hard questions about how all this could have gone down on their watch. 

So, now what? Clearly, the aging, crumbling and dangerous Waupun and Green Bay prisons need to be shut down, not just to provide better, more humane facilities, but to establish brand new cultures among administrators and guards. 

But here comes the rub. While both parties agree that one or both prisons need to be closed, the Republicans want to replace them with new facilities, while activists influential among Democrats simply want to close them without replacing them. 

Evers seems to be a captive of that activist view. In 2019, Republicans passed a budget amendment which would have provided $5 million to plan for a new prison to replace Green Bay, but Evers vetoed it. Yet, he’s done nothing in five and a half years to make good on his 2018 campaign promise to cut prison populations in half. When Carr was asked back in 2019 about how he would proceed to reduce prison populations he said, “it’s premature to identify anything at this point.” Apparently, things never matured. 

The irony is that the very people who see themselves as advocates for inmates are the primary roadblock to improving the conditions of incarceration. By holding out for the perfect, they’ve become the enemy of the good. 

It’s an extension of what happened in Dane County. The county’s lockup on the top floors of the City-County Building has been identified for decades as inhumane and unsafe. But for years hard-left activists stood in the way of its replacement because they wanted a smaller facility or, in some cases, no jail at all. When the delays they forced ran into skyrocketing construction costs, the end result will be a county jail system with 20% fewer beds in the fastest growing county in the state. The result of facilities that are too small will likely not be the criminal justice reforms that the activists say they want to leverage, but instead inhumane overcrowding. 

The way out of this for Evers could be both good policy and good politics. He could start by appointing a blue ribbon task force to look at the problems, not just at Waupun and Green Bay, but at the DOC overall. Among others, that panel could include the former DOC secretaries appointed by both Govs. Tommy Thompson and Jim Doyle. They should be asked to start with the assumption that Waupun and Green Bay will be closed and replaced and then tackle the following questions. 

How many new facilities should be built and where? It never made sense to me to have a prison population that was predominantly from southeast Wisconsin in facilities that are far away, hard to access for their families and where the pool of prison employees is not as diverse as the prison population. It seems clear that at least one of these facilities should be in the Milwaukee metro area. 

What’s the right size? It’s true that Wisconsin has a high incarceration rate and even Tommy Thompson has admitted that he built too many prisons. States like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Alaska and Oklahoma have cut their prison populations by 25% or more. So, maybe we can build smaller new facilities. But the primary question shouldn’t be about an exact number of inmates in any event. It’s about how many prison beds we need to keep the public safe. In fact, maybe a newly chastened Gov. Thompson could lead the task force to a responsible answer to that question. 

How can we design the best new facilities that are humane and that can support programming that will give inmates the best chance of success and staying out of trouble in the future? The vast majority of inmates will return to society some day. It’s in everyone’s best interests that they become good citizens. Facilities that brutalize them aren’t just morally wrong, but they’re counterproductive. They end up putting the public at greater risk. 

It’s not just Evers but the whole Democratic Party, my party, that is perceived as being on the wrong side of the crime issue. Moving back to the center — understanding that the public wants the bad guys locked up but locked up in humane facilities — is the right thing to do both morally and politically. 

And on another matter…. Dean Mosiman retired from the Wisconsin State Journal last week. Mosiman worked for the paper for 26 years, most of it covering city government. He covered my office for eight years when I was mayor. In a press corps that was generally fair and hard-working, Dean was, well, the dean of that group. I know that he’s most proud of his deep dive reporting. He wrote a series titled “Life and Death on Allied Drive,” for example, that explored what it was like to live in what was then Madison’s most troubled neighborhood. But I think his best work was his regular coverage of city budget and development issues. He knew the budget and the development process better than just about anyone in City Hall — certainly better than the mayor during the period 2003 to 2011. Dean is what you get when you let a good reporter cover the same beat for a couple of decades. You get an informed public. 

Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison- and Upper Peninsula-based writer who served as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011. You can read more of his work at Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos.

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