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Rep. Scott Walker sees the future for Wisconsin's overburdened prison system, and it doesn't involve a massive building campaign by the state.

Instead, Walker, R-Wauwatosa, the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corrections and the Courts, envisions a landscape dotted with shiny new corrections facilities, built and operated by private prison companies.

And he's introduced a pair of bills that would pave the way.

Walker's proposals go way beyond pending legislation to buy or lease the Stanley prison from a private company. That prison would be operated by the state.

One of Walker's proposals would hand over the operation of Wisconsin state prisons to private companies, allowing them to take on a responsibility the state has held exclusively since 1851. No action has been taken yet on that bill.

His other proposal would clear the way for private companies to incarcerate convicts from other states, opening Wisconsin to a free-market trade in U.S. prisoners. That bill passed through Walker's committee last week and may reach the full Assembly in November.

According to Walker, private prisons are coming to Wisconsin whether we like it or not, so the state had better be ready with legislation to regulate them.

Walker said statutes are silent on prisons for out-of-state inmates, so companies can make a legal case that state law allows them. He said his proposal would protect the state from companies like Dominion Venture Group of Edmund, Okla., which built the Stanley prison and is now pressuring the state to buy or lease it.

``Both Dominion and the city have threatened to file suit and bring in out-of-state inmates,'' Walker said.

Other lawmakers say Walker's bill is the wrong approach.

``He's hit upon an issue here that private companies should not be able to put up unregulated prisons,'' said Rep. Dave Travis, D-Madison, a member of the corrections committee. But Travis, who is opposed to private prison construction, said Walker's bill ``ended up being something that will encourage it.''

Travis recognizes that the state has to find somewhere to put its exploding prison population. Wisconsin inmates now number nearly 20,000, in a system with a rated capacity of 11,000. And if a recent circuit court ruling holds up, the state will be ordered to bring home the 4,000 inmates it now sends to private prisons out of state.

And a law eliminating parole, which takes effect in January, is likely to send prison numbers soaring even higher.

But Travis said if the state needs more prisons, it should be the state that builds them, not private companies.

Housing and rehabilitating the state's inmates, he said, ``should not be a money-making venture.''

Forcing the issue: The Stanley prison is a turning point in the state's corrections policy. Dominion gambled that just by building the prison, the company would force a change in state law.

``We have pioneered the concept of `Field of Dreams' prisons,'' boasted Jim Roberts, Dominion's vice president for marketing, referring to the movie's catch phrase, ``If you build it, he will come.''

Some lawmakers have bristled at Dominion's approach.

``We're going to have anther 5,000 beds in the next couple of years, and unfortunately we're stuck with this turkey,'' Travis said. ``We've let a private firm decide state correctional policy, and that's ridiculous.''

But others have backed the project from the beginning.

While state officials insist the state never gave the company a go-ahead, company executives met with lawmakers and personnel from the departments of Corrections and Administration as early as 1996 to gauge political support and to ensure that the facility was built to state specifications.

Walker -- who with Rep. Scott Jensen, R-Waukesha, was one of the first lawmakers to meet with Dominion officials -- said the state was cautious about appearing to encourage the project. Corrections and Administration officials provided only general information about building specifications, he said.

But Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher is now openly urging the state to lease the facility. An Assembly panel backed the plan Wednesday, and Gov. Tommy Thompson said he would be happy to sign the bill.

The Department of Corrections estimates it will cost the state $6 million a year to lease the prison, and $23 million over the next two years to operate it.

Dominion originally estimated it would cost $40 million to build the Stanley facility, but according to Jim Hunter, Dominion vice president, the costs have increased ``significantly.''

``We won't release the number until negotiations with the state begin,'' he said.

Originally planned to hold 1,320 beds, the prison has undergone design changes that will allow it to expand to as many as 1,620, Hunter said.

Waiting in the wings: Dominion and other corrections companies are lobbying hard to convince lawmakers to open the state's prison operations to the free market.

Dominion has spent $28,000 during the current legislative session on a lobbying team that features Thompson's former Chief of Staff John Matthews and former state Rep. Rosemary Potter, D-Milwaukee, according to records at the state Ethics Board.

Corrections Corporation of America -- which controls 55 percent of the private prisons market and handles half of the prisoners Wisconsin now sends out of state -- would take a serious look at building and operating prisons in the state if the laws allowed it, according to spokeswoman Susan Hart.

Wackenhut Corp., which according to a company spokesman is very interested in the Wisconsin market, has spent $18,000 on a lobbying team that includes former Secretary of Development William McCoshen. The company's construction arm, Correctional Properties Trust, is planning to build a 1,200- to 1,800-bed prison in Douglas County near Superior, using the same strategy Dominion used in Stanley.

Prisons mean jobs: ``Like it or not, prison industry is economic development,'' said state Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, whose district includes Correctional Properties' future prison site. Speaking at a hearing last week on a bill that would allow the state to lease or buy the Stanley prison, Jauch placed local economic development above qualms over allowing firms to capitalize on Wisconsin's prison woes.

``Communities seek the development of prison construction because they recognize that family economic income, retail business and community development thrive as a result of these major economic development projects,'' he said.

In Stanley, Dominion garnered local support by dangling the prospect of 618 jobs and a projected $39 million a year in commerce before the City Council.

``Stanley, Boyd and Cadott are basically farm communities,'' said Rep. Larry Balow, D-Eau Claire, whose district includes the Stanley area. ``The small towns are virtually dying. Most of the stores shut down, the area is losing dealerships. And kids are moving to the Twin Cities, and some are even going to Madison.''

In an area dependent upon farming, wildly fluctuating grain and dairy prices have taken their toll, Balow said.

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After striking a deal with Dominion, Stanley annexed the 610-acre site and invested $2 million in sewer and water lines. In return, residents hope for a stable economy.

Balow, who said he has reservations about how the deal was carried out, nevertheless has been one of the most ardent cheerleaders for the prison, along with Sen. David Zien, R-Eau Claire.

``I felt that was my job, to make sure their voices were heard,'' Balow said, adding, ``I don't like to use the word economic development with prisons, but we're going to be spending money, so why not spend it in Wisconsin?''

Enlisting labor: According to Walker, one of the most important trails blazed by Dominion was the enlistment of labor support.

Trade unions initially opposed the prison, which unlike state building projects was not subject to prevailing wage standards. One-fourth of the work was done by Dominion's in-house construction company, Canan Construction. And a third of the work the company contracted out was done with nonunion labor, according to union officials.

But according to Mike Kelly, an organizer for the Northern Wisconsin Regional Council of Carpenters, Dominion employed union labor for the final two-thirds of the project, virtually ending union resistance to private prisons.

The state AFL-CIO is also rethinking its policy on private prisons.

``Historically, we've always opposed private prisons, and still do, especially with what they did in Stanley, coming in and taking advantage of an economically depressed area,'' said Phil Neuenfeldt, legislative director of the state's AFL-CIO.

``At the same time, you have prisoners being sent out across the country, and people here want jobs.''

Walker said breaking down labor resistance to private prisons will be key in gaining legislative support, especially among Democrats.

At a carpenters convention in August, Corrections Secretary Litscher promised that 100 percent of future prison projects would pay prevailing wages.

``I think the biggest test probably is not so much Stanley, but how things work out with Wackenhut in Douglas County,'' Walker said. ``If labor support holds up, that will set the stage.''

Baby steps: Dominion officials see themselves as nothing more than prison speculators. But their aggressive approach has lent a sense of inevitability to the entrance of private prisons on the Wisconsin stage.

Corrections committees in both the Assembly and the Senate are likely to approve an agreement to lease the Stanley prison. That will clear the path for the state to buy its next unauthorized prison in Douglas County.

Thirty-two states allow private companies to own and operate prisons. And if Walker is correct, by the time the Douglas County prison is built, Wisconsin will be the 33rd.

The state could be contracting with private companies for the construction and operation of private prisons for Wisconsin inmates. And prisons for inmates from other states could dot the landscape in economically depressed areas.

In Walker's view, it's just a matter of getting people used to the idea.

``You kind of have to take baby steps for people to get their comfort level,'' he said.

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