Op Ed

A Solution To Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s Prison Crisis

Frank Schneiger explores how to address serious and desperate conditions in Wisconsin prisons.

By - Feb 15th, 2024 12:58 pm
Waupun Correctional Institution. Photo from the Department of Corrections.

Waupun Correctional Institution. Photo from the Department of Corrections.

There are different kinds of problems. There are chronic, in-your-face problems, like inflation; one-time, clearly soluble problems, like finding a parking space, there, solved. Highly visible, versus largely hidden problems. And different levels of seriousness. A clever person once described a problem as serious, but not desperate, as opposed to desperate, but not serious.

Then, there is another category: problems that are simultaneously serious and desperate. These are the problems that produce downward spirals and become insoluble. Despite its inherently low, one-day story visibility, Wisconsin’s prison crisis falls into this frightening category.

Tolstoy once said that “There are no conditions to which a person cannot become accustomed, especially if they see everyone around them living in the same way.” The prison crisis simultaneously proves, and is an exception to, Tolstoy’s rule. Those who control the system but rarely see it up close, and “ordinary citizens” who have “opinions” but have never been in a jail or prison are easily accustomed to these conditions. Out of sight, out of mind. And “they,” the imprisoned, are just getting what they deserved in the first place.

The two groups inside these systems, inmates and staff, except in the most destructive sense, do not become accustomed to how they are living. The first group deteriorates and, in some instances, dies. The second, if they have any options, flee the system. Or, if they remain, they become engulfed in an environment of enormous stress, violence and mutual dehumanization.

That is exactly what is happening in Wisconsin’s institutions. And, if substantive and dramatic steps aren’t taken, will almost inevitably lead to a downward spiral that will place the state in the company of places like Mississippi and El Salvador. And anyone who believes you can improve the lives of either group – inmates or staff – without doing the same for the other is wrong.

There are two front-end challenges to effective action in the current toxic environment: the norm of backward-looking blaming and finger-pointing, as opposed to problem-solving, and Wisconsin’s advanced stage of “otherization,” the dehumanization of certain groups. In this case, the likelihood that members of these groups have committed serious offenses compounds the challenge.

A starting point: make these norms – blaming and otherization – explicit. And explicitly reject them.

Instead, clearly define the problems and available choices. Rather than “who can we blame,” what are the best achievable choices? “Why” and “how,” not “should.” And, to be clear, a strategy that will require substantial investments in staff and building healthy workplaces.

In working toward these goals, tinkering around the edges won’t work. You can either spend money now or spend far more on “the back end,” with far greater negative consequences.

As the second highest priority, immediately after security, define health and mental health care in the broadest possible manner, by population group, men, women, adolescents and for all staff, regardless of level or assignment.

In working toward these goals, there should be a basic acceptance of the reality that these institutions inevitably breed stress and cynicism. They also often become the employer of last resort in the health professions, a handful of idealists notwithstanding. The most effective – maybe the only – strategy for achieving an acceptable level of care is some form of “affiliation” agreement with a reputable health care system, preferably a teaching hospital system. That arrangement ensures high-quality staff, the maintenance of standards and rotations that avoid the onset of cynicism.

Another absolutely essential component is the presence of a high-quality “re-entry” program, one with a Milwaukee base. The most successful of these groups make contact months before release. They provide immediate housing, employment, health and – critically important – behavioral health services, and support for family reunification and resolving outstanding legal problems. In Milwaukee, they could play a valuable and visible role in housing deconstruction, moving away from a landfill-based economy and greening the city.

A brief case study, a true story that captures the value of this approach. Joe’s (not his real name) former parole officer was shocked to learn that he was still enrolled in the re-entry program two years after release. He pointed Joe, aside from prison, had never been in any place in his life for more than two years. Despite Joe’s many “quirks” and repeated short-term suspensions, this group had stuck with him, providing the full range of services just described.

Flash forward 10 years: Joe is now married and has worked steadily for the past eight years, a taxpayer. Consider the alternative: the pattern of repeated re-incarcerations costing the state millions of dollars, and resulting in repeated community disruptions and a wasted life.

In the end, it is all about an achievable vision of a better future for individuals and communities, a clear strategy and, critically, solid execution: the right people in the right roles, systems and processes that work, effective and clear communications and clarity on two core values, humanity and trust. It is doable. We know that because it is being done.

Frank Schneiger is founder and president of Frank Schneiger and Associates, a management planning and consulting firm, and has held top government positions for both the city of New York and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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Categories: Op-Ed, Public Safety

One thought on “Op Ed: A Solution To Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s Prison Crisis”

  1. ZeeManMke says:

    How about fully funding the State Public Defender? How about choosing a new State Public Defender that is not a defeatist who cultivated a “losers” attitude by allowing repeated attacks on the private attorneys that are appointed to take the cases the Public Defender cannot? On one side we have fully funded DAs, judges who might as well be on the DAs team, and the entire police department to investigate and testify in criminal cases.

    On the other side, we have the little boy from “Oliver” (the SPD) who says “May I have another bowl of gruel, sir?” That recent “deal” you heard about? It results in even fewer Assistant Public Defenders while the DAs offices around the state grow and grow. Crime certainly needs to be dealt with. But when the deck is stacked against criminal defendants, their attorneys are stretched too thin, they lack the investigative resources of the police, and judges favor DAs, far too many people are convicted who should not be. Many people in our state, who have never been convicted of anything, sit in jails for weeks and months because the Public Defender cannot find attorneys interested in taking on those cases. That is unconscionable and intentional. No other state in the midwest locks up as much of its population as Wisconsin.

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