Wisconsin’s Enormous Prison Count and Mistreatment of Prisoners

Last week I attended a panel titled ‘Reentry: Ready or Not’ organized by Milwaukee’s Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, the Milwaukee Turners, and other local community partners. Wisconsin currently imprisons 23,755 people, more than twice as many as neighboring Minnesota. The focus was on ways to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population, along with how to better prepare prisoners for success once they’re outside.

Kevin Carr, due to his position as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, was the panelist both the audience and other panel members themselves most wanted to hear. Carr assumed his post recently, appointed by Governor Tony Evers who took office last January. Carr’s heart seems to be in the right place, but he brings a maddening lack of urgency.

Carr repeatedly cautioned about the perils of making change via his authority or the governor’s alone rather than legislation, noting that anything done in that manner can be easily reversed by a future administration. While that’s of course in many ways true, it ignores the considerable powers he and the governor do have, along with the simple fact that whatever good can be done now while Evers is in office is worthwhile in its own right.

What the Governor and DOC Can Do

Most notable are pardons. Scott
Walker, Evers’ predecessor in Wisconsin’s governor’s mansion, issued no pardons
at all during his eight years in office. Evers has finally resurrected the pardon
board. Pardons to deserving inmates are the simplest, most direct way to reduce
the prison count. Carr touted this as progress, but an audience member pointedly
questioned why Evers is currently only accepting pardon applications from inmates
who have completed felony convictions over five years ago. What about people
incarcerated now? Carr said Evers’ current pardon criteria are only a start and
expansions are to come. But Evers was inaugurated over a year ago. What are we
waiting for? The human, moral, and budgetary stakes are enormous- why can’t the
pardon board start to examine all deserving cases right away?

There are many other matters over which the administration has direct control that Carr wasn’t asked about at this event. How about ending the overuse of solitary confinement as prisoner punishment? What about prison profiteers, such as companies that charge a small fortune for phone calls to inmates due to contracts with the Department of Corrections which allows it? These are all injustices that should be ended now. It’s frustrating to hear vague agreement from those with the authority to get this done but no commitment to specific actions or timeline.

Treatment of Prisoners

Carr was also asked about
treatment of prisoners by guards, and he pointed to various training programs
his department has in place. There are racial and economic disparities between
many of the guards and inmates, and the programs aim to sensitize the guards to
that, along with the mental health problems many inmates face.

Carr also said that he is working
to change the language used by his department. For example, rather than ‘offenders’,
he refers to inmates as ‘the people we care for’. He says this is to help
prevent dehumanizing the inmates.

Another panelist, Sylvester Jackson, spoke poignantly about racism. Jackson is a former prisoner who now advocates for reform. He said that of all the people he has worked with, he has never seen racism as intense as with some of the prison guards. Jackson is black, and he said when he was on the inside many of the white guards didn’t understand his manner of speech and considered just the way he talked as a black person to be an insult. Jackson said we have to be real about what training can achieve. When guards are all white and have limited histories of personal interaction with people of color, it is inevitable they will have trouble relating to the black inmates they control. Carr responded by pointing out that many Wisconsin prisons are in remote areas. Even though many of the prisoners are African American, there is no way for him to find anyone local who is not white to hire to be a guard.

An Unhelpful Suggestion

Christine Apple, Chief
Psychologist of Milwaukee Community Corrections who was also on the panel, made
a suggestion. She noted that many other large organizations struggle with sensitivity
training. She pointed out hospitals in particular, where medical staff must
learn to interact with patients of every type, many fearful and agitated. Why
doesn’t the department of corrections use the best practices developed in these
settings to train its guards?

Unfortunately, though, that isn’t
likely to help. Prison guards are completely different than other professionals.
Usually, the workplace helps break down prejudice. When someone has little or
no social contact with members of another race, stereotypes and portrayals in
the media are all that there is to shape that person’s thinking. Then working provides
the personal contact necessary to start developing a more complex and nuanced

Medical professionals encounter
diversity not only amongst their colleagues, but also a different type of
social and economic diversity with their patients. But their situation is quite
different than guards. Doctors are there to heal and help. Guards control and

There’s been much research on the psychological effect of having power over others, such as the famous Stanford prison experiment. In that experiment subjects were randomly divided into guards and inmates, and those selected to be guards quickly started to treat those selected as inmates cruelly. The point is that there is a great difference between interacting with others as corporate colleagues or even medical clients on the one hand and leading people around in handcuffs and counting them in their cells five times a day on the other. The work a guard does tends to boost cruelty and racism such that it’s difficult for anything else to bring that down.

Carr’s initiative to change his department’s language is also unlikely to have an impact. Calling inmates ‘the people we care for’ has an almost Orwellian tone. The way inmates are treated is often the antithesis of care. Imagine a holiday weekend when many guards want off leaving the prison short-staffed. How would this sound? “We’ll have to lock the people we care for in their cages and leave them in there for four days straight since most of us are taking off. A couple times a day whoever’s stuck working can shove the people we care for peanut butter sandwiches between their bars. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!”  

There is no easy or simple answer
to preventing prisoner mistreatment. The type of training Carr and Apple want
more of is unlikely to have much benefit, but that’s no reason not to do it. Prisons
should be built close to the places most prisoners live. In addition to making
it feasible to find guards that mirror the diversity of inmates, that would
have the added benefit of making family and clergy visits much easier. But prisons
once built can’t be moved, and building more is the last thing we wish for.

Carr admitted that it’s sometimes hard for his department to fill all the needed guard positions, so often he can’t be too choosy. That’s another hard to solve problem. Guards should be carefully screened before hiring. They also must be scrupulously monitored by an outside authority while on the job. That way abuse can be spotted without relying on guards to report on one another, which they are unlikely to do, and without relying on inmates to report since they are often too fearful of retaliation.

Reduce the Number of Prisoners

But the most important action we
need to take by far is to reduce the prison population. Prisoner abuse and the size
of the prison population are in theory separate issues, but in practice they’re
linked. As the prison count balloons, as it has over the last few decades in
Wisconsin, all the problems of cruel treatment are exacerbated. More prisoners
means more guards, which means accepting lower quality guards, more diluted
supervision and training, poor conditions due to more overcrowding, and so on.
This is of course in addition to the toll unnecessary incarceration takes on
communities and families, let alone the state’s budget.

By incarcerating approximately
24,000 inmates, Wisconsin does one wrong by keeping people needlessly in jail,
then another wrong because this sheer volume of inmates makes it more likely
that they will be mistreated. Prison should be reserved for only the small
subset of people who truly threaten public safety and cannot safely be
released. Sentencing reform, changing rules surrounding revocation, and
pardoning those who no longer need to be in prison are the main ways to get
there. Where’s the urgency, Mr. Carr?

 Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

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