Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Will Wisconsin Use Private Prisons?

Wisconsin's adult inmate population is expected to grow to 23,233 by mid-2019.

By - May 8th, 2017 10:13 am

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.

There’s a reason Gov. Scott Walker’s budget gives the state prison system more money than the UW System over the next two years.

“After a brief decline, Wisconsin’s prison inmate population has begun to grow again, raising the prospect of increasing costs for taxpayers and renewed pressure on state finances,” the nonprofit Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance (WTA) reported.

Two reasons why taxpayers should care: It will cost an average of $31,975 to care for a male prison inmate this year; $38,643 for a female inmate. And, spending to house state inmates elsewhere is going up by 47% – from $18.36 million this year to $27 million next year.

Walker’s budget would give the state Department of Corrections $2.25 billion in general-fund cash over the next two years; the UW System would get $2.19 billion.

Yes, the two systems are funded much differently: Wisconsin taxpayers pay almost all of prison system costs, while the UW System will get another $10 billion from other sources – tuition, fees and federal research grants – over the two years.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) said there were 23,088 adult inmates on April 28.

But WTA warned that the number of adult inmates will grow slightly — to 23,233 – by mid-2019. Nine out of 10 inmates are male, and about 40% are African-Americans.

WTA said there are several reasons for the increase in inmates: They are serving longer terms for more violent crimes. More inmates who had been on extended supervision are being returned to prison. Repeat drunken drivers are serving longer sentences.

Even a small population increase is a problem, because the state prison system has an operating capacity of 17,479. The prison system is now 30% over its capacity, and some prisons – the five maximum-security facilities for men, for example – had twice as many inmates on April 28 as they were designed to hold, according to the DOC report.

Walker recently said he did not tour a prison in his first years as governor and he proudly sponsored tougher-on-crime bills as a state Assembly member in the 1990s, when the prison population almost tripled (7,332 inmates in 1990 and 20,111 in 1999).

The governor does not want Wisconsin to build any new prisons to deal with overcrowding or projections of more inmates.

Where will the additional prison inmates go?

Prison-reform advocates warn that the answer may be private prisons – again. Between 1998 and 2005, Wisconsin inmates were housed in for-profit prisons in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Mississippi and Georgia, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The Rev. Jerry Hancock, a former assistant general who now directs the Prison Ministry Project, said private prisons could be used again:

“DOC will need 2,000 more beds because of the changes in [drunk driving] laws. That would require two new prisons. They will not build two new prisons.

“They will try and rent bed space in county jails. If that doesn’t work, [Corrections Secretary Jon] Litscher said that they would consider private prisons.

“The use of for-profit prisons unconscionably outsources one of the state’s most import functions. Wisconsin must insure that prisons are safe for the people that live there and for the people that work there. Also, people sent to prison must come out better than when they went in. Repeated investigations have found that for profit prisons fail on both counts.”

But DOC spokesman Tristan Cook had a simple response to Hancock’s scenario: It won’t happen.

“The use of private prisons by DOC is not a solution under consideration and not something DOC is considering to manage the inmate population,” Cook said. “We have no plans to house inmates in private prisons.”

Cook said, when Litscher discussed prison populations with legislators, he was making it clear that using private prisons would be a “last resort.”

“There are a number of additional measures remaining to manage the inmate population, include increasing utilization of available space within Wisconsin county jails,” Cook added.

DOC’s pays counties $51.46 per day to house state inmates in “contract beds.” On April 28, there were 234 inmates in county jails – including 98 in the Oneida County Jail, 26 in Fond du Lac County, 25 in Vernon County and 24 in Juneau County.

Trivia question: In mid-2016, how many of Wisconsin’s male inmates were age 75 or older? 93

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

2 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Will Wisconsin Use Private Prisons?”

  1. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Every crime that kills little kids inMilwaukee, heroin overdoses comes from people with long records that should be in jail, not in the “Catch and Release” program of Chisholml/Kermers

  2. BOBBI says:

    Milwaukee’s infested to overflowing with darkies of every hue and shade.

    Wisconsin OBVIOUSLY needs more prison space, more homicides, more ‘bortions, more drug overdoses.

    Otherwise, the terrorists WIN!

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