Voices From the Inside Out: Served the time but kept in prison

Prisoners exercising, Van Gogh, 1890.

From the May-June 2019 issue of News & Letters

by Robert Taliaferro

On April 28, 1994, Wisconsin’s Governor Tommy Thompson sent a letter to the Secretary of the Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections Secretary which said, “…I recently proposed and subsequently signed into law a bill to end mandatory parole for violent offenders in Wisconsin. In enacting that important change, legal counsel advised that any retroactive change in the law would be unconstitutional.”

In Wisconsin, people confined under its older laws were given legislatively enacted good time based on their sentence, reducing the time that a person would spend in prison. Though a prisoner could get discretionary parole that would release them early, there were no guarantees this would occur. Once a prisoner reaches their mandatory release date, the state had to release them under parole supervision to serve out the remainder of their time.

THOMPSON—NOT ABOVE THE LAW

Thompson would have liked the law to apply retroactively to people sentenced before the law’s passage, but that would have violated the federal and state constitutions. To avoid that violation, he “strongly suggested” that the department find all legal means possible to ensure that certain prisoners in Wisconsin did their maximum sentences, writing: “Therefore, although I have ended mandatory parole for violent offenders, there are some inmates already in prison who are still governed by the old release law. I believe that mandatory release of violent criminals is wrong. That is why I called a Special Session of the legislature in 1987 to pass a ‘life means life’ sentencing bill, and that is why I moved to end mandatory parole for violent offenders this year.”

Thompson was fueling the flames of fear by playing politics with mass incarceration. This policy devastated a large area of Milwaukee’s Black community as young Black males were disproportionately incarcerated, a situation that has been expanded—especially under the governorship of Scott Walker.

Thompson now seems to have relented, even regretted, his hard-line approach to prisons. In a variety of articles and interviews, he presented his new thoughts on corrections to anyone who gave him a forum, much to the dismay of prisoners confined in the multiple prisons built on his watch.

Ironically, what Thompson so magnanimously suggests today, are things he rejected 25 years ago, especially where it concerned long-timers who had committed a violent crime, but who had, over decades, rehabilitated themselves. An irony of corrections is that long-term prisoners when released have much lower recidivism rates than nonviolent offenders.

A TOO LATE CHANGE OF HEART

As devastating as Thompson’s 1994 letter was to many serving life with parole eligibility, or lengthy near life sentences, it was the last two paragraphs of that letter that continue to haunt Wisconsin long-term prisoners. They are still often referred to in court actions when a long-term prisoner attempts to challenge current parole or program decisions: “In order to implement this policy as fully as possible, I hereby direct the Department of Corrections to pursue any and all available legal avenues to block the release of violent offenders who have reached their mandatory release date. The policy of this Administration is to keep violent offenders in prison as long as possible under the law.”

These paragraphs, and the prisons he ordered built, are his lasting monuments that affect long-term prisoners today when they apply for parole or program changes to lesser security settings.

Thompson is said to have strong views about the mistakes that he made during his tenure as governor, especially as they related to Wisconsin’s entry into the mass incarceration market. Some of the greatest wisdom in the world comes from 20/20 hindsight. Unfortunately, as many prisoners will tell you, rarely does it matter to the people you have harmed. Some things you just can’t take back, regardless of how much you try.

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