Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Staffing, Crowding and Death in the Wisconsin DOC

 A new report from FFUP.

Download and print or read the full report here:

The introduction and executive summary are below:


Wisconsin’s prison system is in crisis. Department of Corrections (DOC) officials claim the problem is understaffing and propose solutions like raising guard wages and building new facilities. These solutions expand their own department and increase Wisconsin’s capacity for mass incarceration, all at great expense for Wisconsin taxpayers. More importantly, they will not address the real humanitarian crisis, and may make it worse. A closer look at guard levels and staffing dynamics in the DOC shows that the problems comes less from understaffing than from overcrowding, high turnover and mismanagement. Expanding the DOC only expands these problems. 

Forum for Understanding Prisons (FFUP) is a volunteer-run non-profit that has done research on Wisconsin prisons and advocacy for people incarcerated in them for over fifteen years. For this report, we’ve combined our years of experience and amassed stories with publicly available data, government reports and open records requests to present a more complete picture of DOC staffing than what the DOC provides itself. Our research also includes information about deaths in the DOC, confirming testimonies from imprisoned people that conditions in the prisons are worsening. We will then examine the impact of staffing trends on conditions in Wisconsin prisons and on prison policy making itself. 

This report is incomplete as our research has been hampered by the DOC’s lack of transparency and failure to promptly release complete and accurate records. Given the gravity of the subject matter, the DOC’s frequent repetition of a misleading “understaffing” narrative, and that narrative’s influence on policy, we provide this incomplete report. Our intention is to follow up with more research as information becomes available. 

This report discusses violent abuse, torture, self-harm, and suicide.

Executive summary

Seeking a system-wide explanation for countless stories of increased instability and abuse in Wisconsin prisons, and a better understanding of the frequent claim that prisons are understaffed, we began research into Wisconsin DOC staffing levels and deaths of incarcerated people. We filed open records requests and pulled data from reports on the DOC website and other research. We focused on a five year research period, from August 2013 to August 2018. 

Our primary finding is that the frequent assertion by DOC officials and policymakers that the DOC is woefully understaffed and must hire more guards is contradicted by actual numbers. 
  • The DOC had significantly more guards (1,094 more) at the end of the research period than the beginning. 
  • Wisconsin’s prison population also increased during that time period, but at a slower rate, so guard staff levels increased relative to the population. In August of 2013, there were 7.36 incarcerated people per guard, in August 2018 the ratio dropped to 5.78. 
  • This ratio approximates the national average (5.1 to 1). Federal prisons operate with a ratio of 10.3 incarcerated people per guard.

The DOC and policy-makers are able to claim crisis-level understaffing despite these objective facts to the contrary because they base their position on vacancy rates, that is, the number of positions that are statutorily approved, but unfilled. Therefore, Wisconsin prisons are only understaffed insofar as they are unable to hire and retain as many workers as the legislature and department aspire to obtain. 

Meanwhile, conditions endured by incarcerated people have reached the level of humanitarian crisis, and are worsening:
  • Overcrowding was high and increased over the research period, from 129% to 134% of design capacity in adult institutions. 
  • Suicides among people who are imprisoned rose from an average of 2 per year to 12 in 2016. 
  • This suicide rate remained elevated (6 per year) through 2017 and 2018.
  • Rates of death for imprisoned people from all causes increased significantly after adjusting for increasing prisoner populations over the research period.

These facts support accounts from people held in Wisconsin prisons that describe worsening conditions. They describe instability and negligence from increasingly inept staff, as well as  growing callousness from guards. Stories of harassment, willful disregard, and violent abuse proliferate, as well as increased reliance on lockdowns and solitary confinement. 

Imprisoned people are not the only ones who complain about degrading conditions, they are just the ones who cannot escape. Our research into staff terminations showed the following trends: 
  • Turnover for guards is high and grew over the research period (from 17.8% to 26.1% annually).
  • A large majority of terminations were guards quitting, frequently without notice
  • While the number of guards rose, the number of other positions (such as social workers, medical technicians, psychiatric staff, and administration) fell by 1,584 people.
  • The DOC’s contracts to private vendors increased dramatically during the research period (from 1 contract worth $2.5 million to 2,798 contracts worth $805 million). Many of these contracts were for temporary workers to replace non-guard staff, contributing to instability and insecurity. 

The data we examined, combined with previously researched and widely available information about Wisconsin’s incarceration rate, racial disparities, incredibly high costs, and overcrowding makes a strong argument for decarceration. Wisconsin must reduce both the number of people held in prisons and the number of people working in them, especially guards. A majority of Wisconsin voters support these changes, as demonstrated by the election of Governor Tony Evers, who made a promise to reduce the prison population by half on the campaign trail. Many Republican politicians agree with reducing Wisconsin’s prison size, making decarceration a theoretically bipartisan issue. 

Yet, scarce progress has been made, indeed Governor Evers has completely reversed direction in a number of ways: expanding beds, staff, and funding for the DOC as well as investment in MSDF, a facility he said he would close “as soon as possible”. The Republican legislature supported spending even more taxpayer money on the prison system. 

Our research suggests that the gap between stated policy objectives and actual policy proposals, let alone results, is caused by the embedded power of DOC staff themselves. We suspect that policy-makers fear following the will of the voters because it will reduce morale and increase turnover, recklessness, and insubordination by guards. They are treading carefully to avoid a complete collapse of the prisons and meanwhile turning a blind eye to a humanitarian crisis underway behind the prison walls. To whatever degree this is true, Wisconsin’s prison system is no longer under the control of the elected government. 

To change course, the government must rapidly reduce its incarcerated population and dependence on prison economies. Some recommended steps:
  • Reform the parole commission to rapidly release thousands of people sentenced under the old law. 
  • Expand the criteria for pardons to include people who are currently incarcerated, and release many of them.
  • Expand compassionate release, allowing aging people to rejoin their families and escape the DOC’s substandard medical treatment which is causing premature death.
  • Expand Treatment Alternative and Diversion (TAD) programs to reduce incarceration. 
  • Rein in the Division of Community Corrections (DCC) to reduce incarceration of people on supervision: cease crimeless revocations, investigation holds, and incarceration during treatment and alternative to revocation (ATR) programs.
  • Rein in the police and District Attorneys especially in Milwaukee and Madison. Saturation policing and aggressive prosecution will continually overcrowd Wisconsin prisons.
  • Close and demolish the ancient Green Bay and Waupun Correctional facilities, which are in disrepair and the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) which is poorly designed and occupying valuable land in downtown Milwaukee. 
  • Convert 2-3 other prisons into mental health facilities under the control of the Department of Health Services following the model of the Wisconsin Resource Center (WRC).  
  • Divest from prison and invest in supportive, wholesome, community-focused growth in both urban communities targeted by the prison system and the rural communities addicted to it.

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