MacIver News Service

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON, Wis. — For a candidate who campaigned on halving Wisconsin’s prison population, Gov. Tony Evers sure wants to spend a lot of money on prisons.

The Democrat recommends nearly $259 million in bonding for seven major Department of Corrections building projects —  a six-fold increase from his predecessor, Gov. Scott Walker’s last capital budget proposal, which recommended $41.68 million in DOC capital borrowing. The brunt of the Evers recommendations, $194 million, comes in the form of General Funds Supported Borrowing, repaid with General Fund Revenue, with $65 million in Existing/Residual bonding.

Evers’ full two-year capital budget proposal, which includes more than $2.5 billion worth of borrowing, goes before the state Building Commission on Wednesday.

Much of Evers’ corrections bonding would cover the costs of building and financing the juvenile detention facilities ordered to replace the troubled Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in northern Wisconsin. Nixing those lawsuit-laden detention centers to make room for new and renovated state and county-run juvenile jails received bipartisan support in the previous legislative session, with Walker signing the bills into law.

But Evers’ capital budget proposal comes up with $150 million more for construction of the youth offender centers.

“The spending is just mind-blowing,” said state Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Corrections.

Schraa takes particular issue with the proposed $115 million for construction of Juvenile Corrections Regional Facilities, at a cost of about $1 million per serious youth offender housed there.

Evers has taken some heat from community members in the Outagamie County community of Hortonia, and in northern Milwaukee, where the governor recently announced his site selections.

“The town of Hortonia was completely shocked by the announcement today, and we have not been consulted at all about this,” town Clerk Lyn Neuenfeldt told Waupaca Now.com last week.

“We also have absolutely no zoning that would be appropriate to have this kind of facility in our township. And we have no interest in having this facility in our township, either,” she said.

Milwaukee Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton, too, expressed his displeasure with the Evers administration decision to site one of the juvenile detention centers in his district. North side Milwaukee residents were surprised by the announcement, he said.

“Don’t you dare make a decision about where these facilities need to go without engaging the people who are going to be affected by those decisions,” Hamilton said at a DOC presentation, as reported by multiple media outlets.

Schraa, who co-authored the juvenile detention reform package with state Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee), said he doesn’t believe the Evers administration put a lot of forethought into the siting decisions.

“No one from the governor’s office contacted officials in Hortonia. The people there are up in arms. This came up out of the blue,” the lawmaker said, adding that the original intent of the bill was to locate the detention facilities where the vast majority of the serious youth offenders live, in southeast Wisconsin.

Evers also is looking to add hundreds of additional prison beds, an admission that social justice programs and initiatives might sound good on the campaign trail but they don’t necessarily reflect the reality of the rising prison population and the need to keep the public safe.

The governor signed off on a $5 million borrowing plan to build a 144-bed barracks housing unit for general population inmates, including Substance Use Disorder inmates, at Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond du Lac.

He also recommends spending $10 million in General Budget Supported Borrowing to build two 144-bed barracks at the Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls. The project will “help address near future needs of inmate housing units,” according to the DOC request.

And the capital budget proposal recommends another 25 beds in a new Restrictive Housing building for Lincoln Hills, which is to be converted into an adult facility.

More beds, more prisons would seem to stand counter to Evers’ campaign rhetoric. The governor campaigned on investing in people not prisons, agreeing with his liberal opponents in the Democratic Party primary that reducing the prison population by 50 percent is a “goal that’s worth accomplishing.”

While Evers has pushed initiatives like decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana possession and sales, the governor’s capital budget is built on the recognition that the state’s prison population as of late last year was 33 percent above capacity. As of Friday, the DOC’s inmate population was 23,860, according to the agency. The inmate population is projected to climb to 26,826 prisoners by fiscal year 2025.

Schraa said Evers made it clear to him in a meeting earlier this year that the governor was not talking about halving the state’s prison population anytime soon.

“That’s when he backtracked and said that his goal is to have that eventually, that that could happen even after he’s out of office,” the lawmaker said.

The governor’s spokespeople did not return a request for comment.

The Department of Corrections, according to an agency email, is “committed to researching any possible opportunities to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population.”

“Under Governor Tony Evers’ criminal justice reform, our staff are looking into many different avenues to reduce the prison population while maintaining our first priority of public safety,” the agency said in the email to MacIver News Service. “For example, the DOC works with the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) on a number of projects to help reduce recidivism and enable individuals returning to their communities to be successful and crime free.”

The department points to the administration’s proposal to spend $880,000 over the next two years on Technical Mobile Labs, a program that aims to bring technical education programs to inmates.

DOC officials say the inmate population projections do not account for the governor’s criminal justice reform initiatives.

Evers’ Corrections capital budget recommendation says yes to all but one of the eight projects recommended by the Department of Corrections. The only request to not receive the governor’s blessing is a new 800-bed minimum-security housing unit at Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center in Union Grove, at a cost of $39.4 million.

M. D. Kittle M.D. Kittle is an Investigative Reporter with the MacIver Institute. Reposted with permission.