Steven Walters
The State of Politics

3 Things You Should Know About Corrections’ Budget Request

Why should you care?

By - Sep 26th, 2016 10:10 am
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Columbia Correctional Institution. Photo by Dual Freq (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Columbia Correctional Institution. Photo by Dual Freq (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Here are three things you should know about the state Department of Corrections (DOC) proposed 2017-19 budget, which the governor and Legislature must debate and approve next year.

Why should you care? Wisconsin’s prison system got more tax funds than the UW System in the current two-year budget, so it’s spending a lot of your tax dollars. (The numbers: DOC got $2.09 billion in tax funds; the UW System, $2.07 billion.)

Fact 1: 9.8% of Wisconsin prison inmates are mentally ill – twice the national average of 4.2%, DOC officials say.

To better treat mentally ill inmates, DOC plans major changes that would cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Just one proposal – converting an Oshkosh prison wing into a secure facility for the mentally ill – would cost $2.2 million by mid-2019, including hiring 17 more workers.

More mental-health specialists are needed for Green Bay, Waupun and Columbia prisons for men, DOC Secretary Jon Litscher said in a letter defending the agency’s budget request.

DOC especially wants to offer new mental health help to inmates in “solitary confinement” – a term used nationally but not by DOC. Instead, DOC’s budget refers to inmates in “restrictive housing,” which the agency defines this way:

“’Restrictive housing (RH),’ previously known as ‘segregation’ in Wisconsin, is the placement of an inmate in a locked cell for 22 hours or more per day” for rules violations.

DOC says its efforts to reduce the number of inmates in solitary have worked: 885 inmates were in RH in June, a 35% drop from the five-year high of 1,362 in March 2014.

Mentally ill inmates in RH are more likely to suffer from depression, insomnia and paranoia, and attempt suicide or try to harm themselves or others, according to DOC. Federal guidelines say no mentally ill inmate should be kept in solitary; five states now have that rule.

DOC’s budget would offer mentally ill male inmates “10/10” programming, which has been available to female inmates for eight years. It gives mentally ill inmates 10 hours per week of structured, out-of-cell therapy and 10 more hours of out-of-cell activities.

Rev. Jerry Hancock, a prison-reform advocate and former state Justice Department administrator, is not impressed, however. DOC “finally has recognized that extended stays in solitary confinement is not appropriate,  effective or humane treatment for the more than 2,000 seriously mentally ill” inmates, he said.

“The proposal to marginally increase the services for the mentally ill, while laudable, is a far cry from what is being done in other states,” Hancock added.

Fact 2: DOC wants $3 million more to implement a new law that made fourth-offense OWI a felony and increased prison sentences for those convicted of five or more OWIs.

DOC expects the new law to add a total of 1,663 prison inmates by mid-2019. That amounts to a 7% increase in the prison population.

The $3 million in additional spending would hire 25 new DOC workers, including 23 social workers who would lead a 20-week Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) treatment program for those sentenced under the new law.

But Wisconsin also doesn’t have enough prison beds for the additional 1,663 inmates expected as a result of the tougher OWI law, DOC officials note. To make room for them, more inmates who don’t need AODA programs would be moved to county jails, with DOC renting those beds.

The sponsor of the bill making fourth-offense OWI a felony, Republican Rep. Jim Ott, still doesn’t believe that the change he pushed through the Legislature will cost that much more.

DOC “absolutely refuses to acknowledge that there could be a deterrent effect,” resulting in fewer fourth-offense OWI convictions, Ott said.

Fact 3: DOC says it will cost $10.6 million next year to GPS monitor 1,500 convicted sex offenders, violators of domestic abuse laws and restraining orders, and others it must track – an average cost of $7,085 per person. Those being monitored only pay about 5% of program costs.

DOC can now GPS track about 1,000 individuals, but the agency expects that to almost double – to 1,920 by mid-2019. DOC started GPS monitoring 156 sex offenders in 2007.

A footnote: Because Milwaukee and other cities have enacted ordinances limiting where convicted sex offenders can live, there is an increase in the number of “homeless sex offenders,” DOC officials add.

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

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