Wisconsin’s prison system will require hundreds of millions of dollars for new construction, operating costs just to keep up with population growth

By Patrick Hughes for the Badger Institute

Even without the new, “Tougher on Crime” legislative package being pushed in Madison, Wisconsin’s prison population could increase by an estimated 5,500 inmates over the next decade and cost taxpayers at least $690 million in new construction costs, according to a Badger Institute analysis of a draft of a report compiled by consultants hired by the state.

Wisconsin prisons are already dramatically over capacity. If elected officials do not emulate other states and the federal government and find a way to stem such prison population growth, the state will need to:

  • Build a minimum of one new prison to house thousands of additional inmates at a cost of $450-$500 million.
  • Dramatically expand two existing prisons at a cost of an additional $240 million.

Those cost estimates – a total of $690-$740 million – do not include staff or operating expenses that will likely run somewhere between $200 million per year for those 5,500 new inmates.

And after all that, some prisons would still be well over the capacity for which they were built, the state would still likely have to replace its institution in Green Bay and upgrade other aging facilities, and some sort of remedy would need to be found for the ongoing juvenile correction’s dilemma – another potential big-ticket cost.

Already Over Capacity

As of February 7, 2020, Division of Adult Institutions facilities have a design capacity of 16,897 inmates for a population of 22,669 (another 940 inmates are housed in the Wisconsin Resource Center or in contracted beds in jails). That means Wisconsin’s adult prisons today are operating at 133% capacity.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) is able to exceed institutional design capacity by putting two inmates in cells designed for one; repurposing offices, classrooms and common areas into housing areas; and through the use of portable plastic beds (known as “boats”) on the floors of cells and common areas. It is unknown how many inmates the DOC can actually hold in its current facilities but a study by BWBR/ Mead & Hunt foresees steady growth that – even without legislative changes that result in more and longer sentences  – will necessitate a prison building expansion spree not seen in Wisconsin in at least two decades.

Wisconsin’s prison population grew rapidly in the 1990s but has been relatively stable in recent years. In part due to tougher drunk driving laws, it has started to grow again. The Legislative Audit Bureau reports that between 2011 and 2018, the prison population grew from 21,941 to 23,675, an increase of 7.9%.

The BWBR/Mead & Hunt study states that in 10 years Wisconsin’s prison population will be over 28,200 inmates. An increase of more than 5,500 inmates, most of whom would need to be incarcerated in medium- or minimum-security facilities, will be difficult or impossible for DOC to house without new construction at existing institutions and/or entirely new prisons. The study notes that this was based upon a straight-line extension of recent prison population trends in Wisconsin and could vary. But even if the projection is off by 50%, an increase of 2,750 new inmates would result in a prison population of over 25,000 and cost the state an additional $90 million per year in ongoing expenses.

There’s no question that something needs to be done. The prison population continues to grow, and many of the state’s 37 correctional facilities require expensive renovations or replacement. But other states have addressed prison overcrowding with reforms that cut inmate populations, saved money and closed facilities – with a corresponding decline in crime rates.

Reforms led by Republicans in Texas allowed the state to close eight facilities between 2011 and 2017. Michigan legislators, again led by Republicans, closed or consolidated 20 prisons since 2005 as a result of a series of reforms. (The DOC even considered renting space in an Upper Peninsula prison that Michigan no longer needed). Several other states have passed reforms with similar results.

Cost of a New Prison and the Fate of GBCI:

 In 2018, the State of Wisconsin hired architecture firms BWBR and Mead & Hunt to review the DOC’s adult facilities and make recommendations for future renovations and/or new construction. This was driven in part by interest from Green Bay-area legislators and local officials to redevelop the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI) property for commercial and residential uses. It was also prompted by a recognition that the state had not completed a system-wide evaluation of DOC facility requirements since 2009.

Drafts of the study were completed in December 2018, but a final report has yet to be released. The Badger Institute, however, has reviewed a draft of the report.

The study indicated that renovations would be too costly given GBCI’s age, condition and physical layout, and recommended building a new facility. As of June 2019, GBCI has 1,083 inmates and 367 DOC employees with an operating budget of $38.8 million. The report estimates that construction of a new 1,200-bed maximum security prison will cost between $450 million to $500 million.

Even if such a facility were built, the projected growth in prison populations will make it difficult to close GBCI – raising the possibility of the need for both a new prison that will cost close to half a billion dollars and either expensive renovations of GBCI or even the need for a second new prison.

Legislators and the governor are at loggerheads on how to move forward right now.

In the last budget cycle, the Legislature included $5 million to buy land for a new prison. There was no consensus, however, on the size and cost of a new facility or the fate of GBCI. Gov. Tony Evers opposes building new maximum security prisons and used a partial veto to reallocate the money and remove the requirement to begin design work. As a result, the DOC will do no preliminary work for a new prison until the next budget is passed in 2022 – at the earliest. 
If the Legislature and governor reach an agreement on a new prison in the 2021-2023 budget, the location must be selected and land purchased. Request for proposals must be developed to solicit bids for design and construction, andthey, in turn, must be evaluated before a selection is made. This process makes it likely that construction will not begin before the end of 2023 and the earliest a new prison could open would be in 2026.

Additional Needs and Operating Costs

According to the architects’ report, the new $500 million prison would likely house approximately 1,200 inmates – a fraction of expected growth in the coming decade. And if lawmakers decided to build a bigger facility, the cost would, of course, go up.

The report, as a result, also includes several other options for increasing inmate capacity. Adding 1,000 medium security beds at New Lisbon Correctional Institution would cost $115 million and adding 1,000 medium security beds at Redgranite Correctional Institution would cost $123 million. These estimates – a total of $238 million – are of one-time design and construction costs and do not include inevitable increases in staff and operating costs.

The Legislative Audit Bureau published an audit of the Division of Adult Institutions’ expenditures in 2019 that calculated the division spends an average of $101.16 per inmate per day, or $36,923.40 per inmate each year. That means that for every 100 new prisoners, the state spends an additional $3.69 million per year. If the study’s projections are accurate, it means that in 10 years the department will be spending an additional $200 million annually to accommodate the 5,500 new prisoners.

A new prison should be more efficient and require fewer employees than old prisons, but even assuming an optimistic 20% reduction in operating costs and assuming all the new prisoners would be in new facilities would leave Wisconsin with $160 million per year in new operating expenses.

Another Unresolved Issue

There has been discussion of converting the Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake juvenile facility into a minimum or medium-security adult institution with a population of 450-600 inmates. That plan stalled, however, when legislators failed to implement juvenile correction reform – another potentially costly project.

Meanwhile, there is no guarantee initial cost estimates will be accurate.

The construction of a new prison in Utah highlights the high costs and complexity of new prison construction projects. Originally estimated to cost $650 million for 4,000 beds, construction delays and cost overruns increased the tab to $750 million even as the scope of the project was reduced from 4,000 to 3,400 beds.

Poor Alternatives and Repercussions of the Status Quo

If nothing is done to either reduce prison populations or build new facilities, the DOC will continue to manage the prisoner population by converting space into living facilities and contracting beds with local jails.

When those alternatives are exhausted, the remaining option is to send inmates to out-of-state prisons, a move that requires legislative approval and proved unpopular when tried in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Doing nothing would be risky.

Overcrowded and outdated prisons are a hindrance to Wisconsin’s goals of keeping DOC staff and inmates safe and to promoting successful rehabilitation and reentry. Recent experiences in Alabama and Mississippi, where prison conditions have resulted in violence, highlight the urgency for finding a long-term solution.

Although Gov. Tony Evers wisely backed away from his campaign promise to reduce prison populations by 50%, he has done little to alter the status quo. A good start would be to release the BWBR/Mead & Hunt report to inform the policy debate.

Texas, Michigan and numerous other states have demonstrated the effectiveness of criminal justice reform. The Trump Administration and Republicans and Democrats in Congress worked together last year to pass the First Step Act, a federal prison reform act designed, among other things, to reduce recidivism. Wisconsin policymakers should take heart that bipartisanship on this issue is also possible at the state level; in Pennsylvania last December, the Republican Legislature and Democrat governor passed measures that are expected to reduce recidivism, produce cost savings and improve public safety.

Patrick Hughes is a Badger Institute corrections consultant. He served as assistant deputy secretary and division administrator in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and as a senior policy advisor to Gov. Scott Walker.