From the September-October 2019 issue of News & Letters
by Robert Taliaferro
When Tony Evers ran for governor of Wisconsin in 2018, he made the standard promises that politicians make to their core supporters, a large number of whom were looking for substantial state prison reform. One of Evers’ main promises was to reduce the prison population of Wisconsin by at least half.
Other Evers’ prison-oriented campaign pledges were to end solitary confinement, mandatory minimums and crimeless revocations of parolees, and to consider reinstating clemency in the state, a process that the former governor of Wisconsin terminated.
PROMISES BROKEN, LIVES PUT ON HOLD
In November 2018, when Evers was elected, a bright moment flashed within the cells of Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons. Prisoners and advocates for prison reform felt they were one step closer to achieving change within Wisconsin’s decades-long policy of mass incarceration. They knew change could not happen overnight, but for the first time in 30 years there seemed to be hope.
While over 30 states around the country have made substantial efforts to actually reduce their prison populations, Wisconsin—at its current rate of growth—is on track to incarcerate 25,000 people in about two years. The state’s current prison population is around 23,000.
Even though Evers campaigned to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population by half, his first budget proposed that 400 additional prison beds be added to the state’s already bloated prison infrastructure; adding a 144-bed barracks to a women’s correctional facility, and proposing that an additional 288 beds in barracks housing at a men’s medium security facility.
According to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Evers defended his proposed expansion, stating, “Doing some temporary expansion is doing nothing more than making it safe for the people that are incarcerated.” This seems to be a contradiction to his alleged goal of reducing Wisconsin’s prison population. There is nothing temporary about a brick and mortar expansion of two existing prisons.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…
Barracks are some of the most demeaning and stressful forms of housing for prisoners. They are nothing more than warehouses that offer little or no privacy in an environment where privacy is at a premium, and it is questionable that they are actually “safe for the people that are incarcerated.”
Evers’ budget proposal is a stopgap method which reneges on the campaign promises that he made, much to the surprise and disappointment of many prisoner-oriented community support groups, but not surprising to Wisconsin’s bloated prison population which has borne the brunt of Governor-defined prison policies—from both parties—for the last three decades.
When it comes to clemency, unsigned form letters were received from the Governor’s office by a large number of prisoners who requested clemency applications, hoping to be considered as candidates for commutation, not pardons. The letters noted that pardons would only be considered after a person has completed their sentence at least five years prior to applying. This would affect so few people that it would be substantially the same policy as promulgated by Scott Walker during his tenure as governor. There is no indication that a commutation process is being considered by Evers.
Though Evers appointed new personnel to top positions at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the Wisconsin Parole Commission—who are outside the culture of nepotism that existed in the past—very few changes are evident within Wisconsin’s correctional culture that continues to systemically reject custody changes and parole requests, especially when it comes to long-term prisoners.
When confined, the only coin that a person has that is worth a damn is what comes out of their mouth and how they act upon the things that they say. It’s unfortunate that politicians, despite espoused good intentions, rarely have that same basic convict integrity.