State Corrections Secretary-designee Kevin Carr said the department plans to close Lincoln Hills youth prison as soon as realistically possible while signaling that Gov. Tony Evers in his budget will take aim at the embattled agency’s staffing shortage.
Evers, meanwhile, said Wednesday he will not include money in his budget for a new prison in Green Bay.
Carr, who has served as a U.S. marshal, told senators at his confirmation hearing Wednesday he would usher in a new era for criminal justice in Wisconsin, a task that would be no small challenge.
“We have a window of opportunity that is wide open for us to really change criminal justice in this state, to make it fairer, to have better outcomes,” Carr said.
Carr called the implementation of Act 185, the law passed last year that will shutter Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls by 2021, “complex,” and said he and the governor are committed to closing the facility “as soon as possible.”
“But we must also be realistic about the time it takes to design and build these specialty facilities” that will replace the current youth prison, Carr added. “Should those facilities be completed sooner, I can’t think of any justification not to close Lincoln Hills whenever there is an acceptable location for the youth to be placed.”
Act 185, which former Gov. Scott Walker signed into law last year, directs Lincoln Hills to be replaced with a handful of county-run and one or more state-run detention centers. Lincoln Hills has been the subject of a years-long criminal investigation and numerous lawsuits for possible abuses that occurred there.
Carr’s comments come as lawmakers consider introducing a bill that would extend the closure of Lincoln Hills, in Irma in northern Wisconsin, by at least six months to accommodate the construction process for the state and county facilities that will replace it.
Evers in January told lawmakers he wants to push back the closure of Lincoln Hills to 2023. Lawmakers — who would have to approve the change — have not warmed to that proposal.
“We are not going to go to 2023 on Lincoln Hills,” Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday.
The bill being crafted by lawmakers may also shift responsibility for developing programming at state-run juvenile facilities from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Children and Families, which some argue is better suited to the task of creating trauma-informed, family-centered programming.
Carr Wednesday said he doesn’t have any objections to DCF providing the programming.
Carr didn’t mince words about the other challenges the department faces, listing staff shortages, the ongoing trouble with Lincoln Hills, and the age and crowding of prison facilities.
He noted current staffing shortages have “significantly” impacted service and the morale of employees, who have worked multiple 16-hour shifts per week.
As of early January, the agency saw about 680 position vacancies for correctional officer and sergeant positions, about 15 percent of the total positions, according to DOC.
The Department of Corrections logged $50 million in overtime costs in 2018, according to an internal review. Lawmakers have proposed increasing wages for correctional officers, a move Carr suggested could be possible in Evers’ budget.
“I believe the governor is going to address this issue in a very significant way,” Carr said.
Pay for correctional officers starts at $16.32 per hour, according to the office of Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she hopes to work with Carr on several topics, chief among them reducing the number of conditions offenders out on supervision must obey, something the secretary said he’d look into.
Carr said he’d explore solutions such as enhanced treatment and jobs training.
Carr said he’d also explore a suggestion from Darling to make affordable housing more accessible for offenders, which Darling said is critical for offenders transitioning to the community.
The comments from Darling and Carr come after several reports have criticized the state’s high number of offenders out on supervision and the length of their sentences.
Researchers at Columbia University Justice Lab found Wisconsin’s rate of parole supervision is the highest among neighboring states and greater than the national average. They also found the length of time criminal offenders are on supervision is nearly two times higher than the rest of the nation.
Recidivism, particularly through technical or “crimeless” revocations, is pointed to as a contributor to the state’s burgeoning prison population, with about 36 percent of all prison admissions in 2017 coming from people who had been revoked without a new conviction.
Wisconsin’s prison population is expected to reach a record 25,000 inmates by 2021, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
Evers nixes funds for new prison
Evers extinguished the possibility of funding a new prison to replace the maximum-security Green Bay Correctional Institution, one of the oldest in Wisconsin’s stock, in his budget.
“There will not be money … in the budget for the prison for Green Bay,” he told reporters.
Evers’ comments came as some Republican lawmakers Wednesday renewed calls for replacing the more than 120-year-old facility in Allouez.
According to a draft corrections facilities report released to the Wisconsin State Journal under the state’s open records law, the GBCI is in need of “major upgrades” for the facility to operate in the short term and “even more significant upgrades” for the long term.
Still, the report suggests that even with upgrades, the facility will still be “functionally and operationally inefficient” and inconsistent with modern prison design.
“It will be important to carefully weigh the value of continued investment in an antiquated facility against the long term operational and maintenance benefits of investing in a modern, efficient, state-of-the-art prison,” the report says.
Evers acknowledged GBCI’s “age and inadequacy.” He has previously called for reducing the state’s prison population by as much as half, and suggested doing so could eliminate the need for building another prison.