Two Brown County lawmakers are seeking to alleviate crowding at a 119-year-old state prison there with a proposal to build a new prison with private contractors and lease it to the state to operate.
Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, and Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, introduced a bill this month that would require the state to sell the Green Bay Correctional Institution’s buildings and its land in Allouez. The bill, which will be before lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing, also requires the state to solicit bids for a contractor to build a new facility in the area and to lease that prison to the state with an option to purchase.
The prison must open by November 2022 under the bill. If the state buys the new facility, the state also would be required to pay to the community an amount annually that is equal to the property taxes paid by the previous owner of the facility. An estimate from the Department of Administration said a new 1,300-bed maximum-security prison could cost $309 million to build.
Under the proposal, the prison would be assessed for property taxes because it’s privately owned. Currently, the Green Bay prison is sitting on valuable land and the county is receiving no property taxes on the building because it’s government-owned. Steffen said the proposal would increase tax revenue for the county in which the new prison is built and allow the current prison to be developed privately, leading to more local tax revenue.
“You now have a taxable property that can benefit whatever county (it’s built in),” Steffen said.
According to a fiscal estimate of the proposal from the Department of Revenue, a privately owned prison with an assessed value of $263 million would have an annual property tax bill of approximately $4.7 million based on Brown County’s average tax rate.
Without the tax revenue benefit, Steffen said, there are few incentives for communities to welcome a prison being built in their area.
“Some will say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to live next to a prison,’ ” Steffen said. “(And) 60 to 100 acres of land is all of a sudden off the tax rolls, so where is the incentive for any community to be a host?”
The project will be less costly for taxpayers than if the state built its own new prison because the private company will cover the costs of construction and the state will pay for the lease only, he said. Steffen estimated the difference over 10 years would be $88 million spent on renting the building versus $150 million to build new, plus bonding costs.
Steffen also said the project is “not a pink-slip proposal” and is aimed at improving the work environment for the staff, too, by building a safer facility.
He said by requiring the new prison be built in Brown County or an adjacent county, the current staff would likely keep their jobs. Steffen said the new facility would require fewer staff, but that reductions would be done through attrition instead of layoffs.
Dems: Safety is priority
Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, said the proposal is worth considering but he also said he’s more concerned about making the current prison, where workers have been assaulted by inmates in recent years, safer.
“I think it’s an interesting idea, and maybe it makes sense to consider it,” Hansen said. “But at the moment, I’m more concerned about the need to make the current prison as safe as possible for the officers and staff who work there and making sure they have a seat at the table when decisions about workplace safety are being made. If the attention shifts to the possibility of a new prison, the focus could be lost on doing what we need to do now to make the current prison safer.”
Rep. Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay, also said improving safety is his first priority.
“These men and women should not have to wait for the construction of a new prison in order to feel safe in the workplace,” he said. “I would also ask for ironclad assurances that this legislation does not, in any way, open the door to privately operated prisons in the state. That is a failed model that deserves to stay dead.”
Private prisons are owned and operated by a for-profit company that has a contract with a state to house inmates and are currently banned by law in Wisconsin. President Donald Trump earlier this year reversed a a 2016 directive from former President Barack Obama to phase out private federal prisons because of a declining prison population and because private prisons were considered less safe than those run by the government.
Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher has indicated he is willing to consider private prisons to handle an increase in inmates because of recently toughened drunken driving laws, in addition to using county jails to house inmates.
“The last option, because you can’t just build a new prison in two or three — or a year to two years — you have to look at possibly the private prison component ... at the very last possibility,” he said at a Feb. 21 Assembly Committee on Corrections hearing. The comment was in response to a projection that the inmate population would increase by about 860 to 24,000 total inmates in 2019.
Lobbyists for CoreCivic Inc., a Tennessee-based company that manages private prisons across the country and has more than $1 billion in annual revenue, have registered an undisclosed position on the bill.
Steffen emphasized this proposal is not one to bring private prisons to the state.
DOC: No position
Tristan Cook, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the department doesn’t have a position on the GOP proposal. He noted that Walker’s proposed budget includes $22.2 million worth of upgrades for the Green Bay prison. It also includes funds for the state to develop a long-range plan for DOC facilities.
The budget proposal would replace a rusted electrical system last updated according to standards set in the 1950s, add new lighting, install a new electronic intercom system and replace the heating and ventilation system and some toilets. The projects are scheduled to be complete by August 2021, according to the budget.
But Steffen said it doesn’t make sense to continue to spend money on upgrades to a facility that was built in the 19th century. He estimated his proposal would save the state $153 million primarily through eliminating expensive maintenance costs on an old facility.
Green Bay Correctional Institution was originally an “old brick bicycle factory” when the state purchased it and 198 acres in 1897 for $75,000 and expanded the facility over the next two decades. The prison is built for 749 inmates but has an average daily population of 1,048, according to a 2016 DOC report. Last year, the prison cost the state $37.1 million to operate and the cost per inmate was about $3,000 more than the state’s average, according to DOC.