The state has approved only 21 cents for every dollar in funding requested by the Department of Corrections for facilities over the past decade, according to a new report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.
The share of Corrections projects approved for funding from 2007 to 2017 was the lowest of the seven state agencies submitting the largest requests for major building projects, the report found. The state approved a dollar for every dollar requested by the Department of Natural Resources, not counting money borrowed for land acquisition through the stewardship program, and about 89 cents for every dollar requested by the University of Wisconsin System.
“It is surprising in the sense that the Department of Corrections is a key state function and there are important public safety considerations to have adequately built and maintained prisons,” Wisconsin Policy Forum research director Jason Stein said of the findings.
Wisconsin invested a lot of money in prisons during the 1990s, which could help explain why less money has been allocated to the agency in more recent years, he said.
But the department lacks the financial flexibility some other agencies have, Stein said. The UW System and DNR can raise money through ticket sales at sporting events and parks, for example. The UW System also receives private donations that can be used to leverage state money from lawmakers.
“It’d be a tough sell to get a private donor to build a prison wing,” he said.
The agency’s struggle to secure state money for facilities comes amid longtime concern about overcrowding in prisons.
DOC described overcrowding as “critical” in a 2009 report, with no space available in the event of an emergency, natural disaster or system breakdown. A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report from 2017 found that Wisconsin’s prisons ran at 102% of their operating capacity, the seventh-highest rate in the country. And the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau projects the state’s adult prison system will exceed capacity by nearly 1,000 inmates in 2021.
The state prison system is also grappling with aging facilities and a legislative mandate to close its only youth prisons, the embattled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities in northern Wisconsin, by July 2021. A handful of counties seeking to build youth prisons as replacements to those facilities requested more than $130 million, but received about $80 million in the budget passed last month.
Delaying requests can increase construction costs, according to the report. A review of several projects deferred in previous budgets found estimated costs rose more quickly than inflation.
A Department of Corrections spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday.
Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corrections, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. An aide for Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, said he was not available for an interview Wednesday.