Gretchen Schuldt
Court Watch

Prison for Profit?

Department of Corrections seeks shortcut for new prison industries, to make money faster.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Sep 27th, 2016 01:02 pm

Columbia Correctional Institution. Photo by Dual Freq (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Columbia Correctional Institution. Photo by Dual Freq (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Still reeling by accusations of abuse and cover-up at its juvenile institutions, the Department of Corrections now is proposing to sharply curtail public input into the creation of new prison industries.

It’s all about making money faster, DOC says in its 2017-19 budget proposal.

“If the Department is more quickly able to establish a new industry, it may be able to realize the profits of the industry sooner,” DOC said in its budget proposal.

DOC must now hold a public hearing before it launches a new industry. Under the department’s proposal, DOC would simply submit plans for new industries to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. The committee could, within 15 working days, call a meeting to consider the matter. If the committee does not notify the department that a meeting is necessary, the department could go ahead and implement the industry without public input.

David Liners, state director of WISDOM, which is deeply involved in state prison reform issues, criticized DOC’s effort to curtail public involvement.

“The biggest problems with the Department of Corrections stem from a lack of transparency and external accountability,” Liners said. “Whether the concern is solitary confinement, procedures that affect parole-eligible prisoners, revocation policy, or prison industries, the Legislature needs to call for greater accountability. This measure seems to be an unexplained, unjustified move in an exactly the opposite direction,” he said.

“Changes to procedure for the Department need to include increased oversight by people outside of the department itself,” he said.

Prison industries remain controversial, with some critics alleging they exploit incarcerated people while others say the industries unfairly compete with the private sector.

In Wisconsin, according to a 2015 Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper, the Department of Corrections’ corporate arm, Badger State Industries, runs businesses in textiles, including laundry and upholstery; imaging, including sign shops and printing; fabricating, including furniture and license plant manufacture; and a distribution center.

In 2013-14, according to LFG, the Badger State prison industries paid an average hourly inmate wage of 94 cents per hour, and ranged from 79 cents to $1.41 per hour. DOC proposed in the spring adding an inmate canteen industry at Taycheedah Correctional Institution. That business would pay inmates 95 cents an hour, LFB said in a June report. Prisons that operated their own canteens paid an average of 11 cents an hour.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “​To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and ​encouraging civic engagement in and debate ​about the judicial system and its operation.”

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