Steven Walters
The State of Politics

New Corrections Chief Faces Problems

Including overcrowded prisons, staff shortages and low morale, and a dearth of leadership.

By - Feb 22nd, 2016 11:18 am
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Waupun Correctional Institution. Photo by Lauren Fuhrmann of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Waupun Correctional Institution. Photo by Lauren Fuhrmann of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Jon Litscher, you will soon become  – once again – secretary of the state Department of Corrections (DOC). The agency is responsible for 22,300 prison inmates and 66,800 others in community settings on probation or parole, and had a budget of $1.3 billion last year.

But the 2016 version of DOC is much different from Gov. Tommy Thompson’s 1999 model. Far from it, in fact. Why? Let us count the ways:

*First, Lincoln Hills – the state’s prison for juveniles – is on fire politically. It’s being investigated by both the FBI and state Justice Department for misconduct, assault and who knows what else. Criminal charges are expected, more than 20 staffers have resigned or been put on leave, the scandal was one reason Corrections Secretary Ed Wall resigned, and Gov. Scott Walker – read his lips – won’t rule out closing the Lincoln County facility to fix this mess.

When you ran DOC for ex-Governors Thompson and Scott McCallum between 1999 and 2003, there were other facilities for juvenile offenders – Ethan Allen, Southern Oaks and Prairie du Chien. Since then, Lincoln Hills became the one-stop-prison for juveniles.

*Second, the old system of managing Wisconsin’s prisons – collective bargaining contracts with unions and your over-a-meal “frenemy” relationship with the late Marty Beil, the angry bear who led the AFSCME union that represented prison guards for decades – is gone.

In 2000, about 5,000 DOC employees belonged to AFSCME, according to union official Susan McMurray. DOC teachers were then members of another union, the American Federation of Teachers. That means that more than half of DOC’s 10,200 employees about 15 years ago were union members. Now, as a result of Act 10 and other factors, “There are currently no certified unions at the DOC,” James Scott, chairman of Wisconsin’s Employment Relations Commission, said last week.

So, prison managers – and not union leaders working with managers through the  framework of union contracts – run them. That’s hurt morale.

But low morale can also be blamed on high staff vacancy rates at adult men’s prisons. One out of every five jobs was vacant at the Columbia prison, for example, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo released by Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach. And more than 10 percent of jobs were vacant at Waupun, Dodge, Oshkosh, Stanley, Green Bay, Fox Lake and Oakhill mens’ prisons.

Those vacancy rates are one reason DOC paid a record $33. 5 million in overtime to prison guards and sergeants who worked 1.2 million hours in 2013-14. At some point, being ordered to work a second straight 8-hour shift isn’t worth that overtime money.

*Third, when you took over DOC in 1999, you could rely on dozens of veteran agency executives to help you run the agency. Since then, governors have appointed DOC secretaries from outside the agency, which has contributed to an exodus of career DOC managers.

*Fourth, truth-in-sentencing laws that require criminals to serve full terms given them by judges had not kicked in when you were last DOC secretary. That means all but few hundred of the 22,300 inmates in prisons now have little hope of getting out early.

*Fifth, the 4,000 inmates that were in out-of-state cells – in Tennessee, Minnesota and Oklahoma – 15 years ago are now back in Wisconsin. That contributes to overcrowding, even though new prisons have been added in Sturtevant, the Chippewa Valley and New Lisbon.

The 22,325 inmates in Wisconsin prisons on Feb. 12 were 130 percent of the capacity those facilities were designed to hold.

*Sixth, more repeat drunken drivers are being sentenced to prison now. Last year, 13.6 percent of all those sentenced to prison were repeat drunken drivers – double the 5.6 percent rate in your first shift as DOC secretary.

*Seventh, on-line technology is now a much more critical part of DOC operations than 15 year years ago. The best example: DOC this year will GPS track almost 900 child sex offenders, monitoring how close they get to schools and other public places, and those who have violated temporary restraining orders or injunctions for domestic abuse or harassment.

Although he’s a DOC critic, Erpenbach called your reappointment a “good move.”

Erpenbach added this qualification, however: “If it’s the Tommy Thompson Jon Litscher, I think it’s a good move. If it’s the Scott Walker Jon Litscher, then I think we’ll have some problems.”

Welcome back, Secretary Litscher.

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com

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