Voices From the Inside Out: Wisconsin’s prison system on trial

January 24, 2019

From the January-February 2018 issue of News & Letters

by Robert Taliaferro

The people of the State of Wisconsin had enough of career politician Scott Walker and elected a new Democratic governor, Tony Evers, a career educator. Immediately, the Republican-led legislature went into a hyperdrive lame-duck session to limit not only Evers’ powers, but that of the newly elected Democratic attorney general as well.


Evers feels it is necessary to address the reformation of the Wisconsin Correctional System—one of the most draconian and racially aberrant in the country. Nearly four decades ago under then-Governor Tommy Thompson and extending through the administrations of now former Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin has the distinction of having the highest per capita incarceration rate of both Black and Native American males in the country.

According to an April 2013 report by the Employment and Training Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “The prison population in Wisconsin has more than tripled since 1990, fueled by increased government funding for drug enforcement…and prison construction, three-strike rules, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, truth-in-sentencing replacing judicial discretion in setting punishment, concentrated policing in minority communities and state [prison] incarceration for minor probation and supervision violations.”

The report noted that over half of Black men in their 30s from Milwaukee County had served time in state prisons, and that Wisconsin locked up white and Hispanic males at a significantly lower rate than the national average.

In 2008, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor at the time, James Doyle, created a “Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System,” which came up with 56 recommendations to address those problems which were prevalent at all levels of the Wisconsin Criminal Justice System. With the election of Scott Walker in 2010, not only were the recommendations ignored, but, like Trump’s scorched earth rescinding of Obama-era regulations and policies, Walker did much the same thing to Doyle’s policies.


In Wisconsin, as in nearly every community in the country, the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), and its state and federal actors, worked diligently to decimate communities of color economically, socially and politically by its rush to incarcerate and financially and culturally bankrupt the families of those who are incarcerated. On returning to their communities, Black males have minimal resources to move forward with their lives in a productive manner, due to roadblocks by the PIC.

The criminal justice system (CJS), from the police to correctional administrators and staff, operates with impunity when it comes to racially discriminatory practices—from inequities in prison disciplinary proceedings, to the assignment of program needs for the sole purpose of keeping prisoners of color confined in higher custody ratings, or being able to deny parole considerations.

When prisoners of color attempt to address these issues in Wisconsin, through administrative or judicial processes, they are required to provide proof that racial bias exists and was intentional. Even if this were feasible, prisoners are fettered by Clinton-era laws such as the PLRA, which makes it nearly impossible to sustain legal actions against abuses. It is hoped that the vision of the executive branch in Wisconsin will encompass a systematic overhaul of the Wisconsin CJS. The battle lines for change had already been drawn even before Evers was sworn in.

Elements in the State of Wisconsin want to conduct business as usual when it comes to the systemic inequities within the state’s archaic criminal justice processes which have been allowed to run rampant. Thompson, Doyle, Walker and others made sure that Wisconsin’s correctional system operated with efficiency to ensure that fear-based policies would enable the PIC to have a firm hold in the state, especially when it came to the incarceration of people of color—a staple of Walker’s policies.

Wisconsin now has an opportunity to evolve from the 18th century ideals in corrections that have festered for decades, and move towards 21st century solutions. It is hoped that Evers’ era of governance is not only “open for business,” but for real change.

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