Monday, November 4, 2019

FFUP meets with Wisconsin DOC's Division of Adult Institutions

DOC Headquarters
Last week Ben from FFUP met with Makda Fessehaye, the administrator for Wisconsin’s Division of Adult Institutions and Molly Vidal, head of the DOC’s communication office. We will be having meetings like this quarterly. The next will be early January, which Peg Swan intends to also attend.

Here are the questions we asked, the answers we gained, and the next step actions we will be taking. This is a lot of work for a very small organization. If you'd like to get involved and meet with Ben sometime soon in Milwaukee, please email him at 

Makda Fessahaye, DAI Administrator

Molly Vidal, DOC Communications Director


QUESTION: What has the new administration done to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Wisconsin prisons 
  • Answer:
    • They created a Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU) working group that’s reviewing policies to reduce solitary use, especially for people with mental health conditions.
      • There will be a time when public input is requested and Makda will include us in the process.
      • The biggest roadblock is gaining buy-in from staff. Makda and Molly said that staff see solitary confinement as a tool that keeps them safe, so it is hard to take that away without giving them a replacement tool or some assurance that they’ll be safe.
      • In the Division of Juvenile Corrections (DJC) they were required by federal department of justice to stop using solitary on kids, and it took years to implement.
        • Note: They’re still struggling with implementation, for example staff is tipping off reporters about incidents where kids fight with staff.
      • They called the changes they’re working on a “big overhaul” and said its coming just a few years after a previous “big overhaul” -the 90 days limit thing from 2015.
  • Follow up Action:

    • Ben already sent Makda the demands Cesar DeLeon and others wrote up in March of 2018 (see appendix 1). We will be using these demands as a baseline that FFUP will push for when given an opportunity to weigh in on this review.
    • Ben’s impression is that DAI knows what we’re calling for and why, but the RHU working group is going to balance public anti-solitary pressure against the staff’s pro-solitary pressure. So we should be thinking about tipping that balance in favor of human rights over staff comfort to press for a better outcome.
      • There has been legislation calling for reduction in solitary confinement from David Crowley’s office. They’ve expressed interest in re-introducing that legislation, which likely won’t pass, but could create an opportunity for increased public awareness and push the issue. We’ll follow up.
      • Our class action lawsuit against solitary is another opportunity to push the issue.
      • Ben and Peg have talked about doing a follow up report to the Staffing Crowding and Death report, where we combine data from record requests with stories from people in solitary units to more deeply examine solitary and mental health issues.
    • We will share everything we learn from Makda regarding the RHU working group going forward with our contacts, especially when new policies come out.

Executive order 31 states that people sentenced under the old law can apply to Chairman Tate for extraordinary release either because of health problems or over-long sentences. The applications are to first go to the warden who is supposed to pass it on to parole chair after confirming that the person is parole-eligable. Instead, wardens have been over-reaching their authority and rejecting the applications themselves.
  • Answer:
    • Makda didn’t seem familiar with this process and took notes when I described it.
  • Follow up action:
    • I’m going to send the details about it with the specific ask that she send a memo to all wardens instructing them to comply with the order and pass along all applications for anyone who is parole eligible to Tate.

Mental health treatment in Wisconsin prisons is atrocious. Specifically, in 2017 Dr Boivin exposed a situation where psychiatrists reducing people’s diagnosis from serious to not serious in order to allow prison staff to put them in solitary. We’ve heard many examples of this practice continuing. Will DAI address it?
  • Answer:
    • Makda seemed unfamiliar with this- though I sent her the article from Wisconsin Watch on it before the meeting.
    • She was skeptical, and suggested that the re-evaluations may have been legitimate.
  • Follow up action:
    • I’ll resend the article.
    • We could do record requests and include data analysis of diagnosis shifting in the upcoming report mentioned above.

Why are Wisconsin prisons put on lockdown or modified lockdown so often? How can transparency about that be improved?
  • Answer:
    • Makda preferred to use “modified movement” and said it can happen for a variety of reasons.
    • They’re unwilling to be more transparent about reasons for modified movement, claiming that it’s often about incidents or finding contraband and revealing the reason might “tip people off” to things that happened which undermine security.
    • They acknowledged that understaffing is often the cause as well.
  • Follow up action:
    • I’m doubtful that we’ll get them to share more information.
    • We can do open record requests about each lockdown, but that will be a lot of work without clear direct benefit.
    • Alerting media to lockdown events when they happen, as with the Taycheedah lockdown in spring of 2019 might help.
    • If anyone who is more familiar with the statutes in play can clarify if there’s a violation of rules or what exactly we want to see changed in the rules or practices, I’d be happy to bring that to next meeting.

What is DAI doing to improve accountability when people held in Wisconsin prisons die? We’ve requested the policy change recommendations from death review processes (not protected health information, but policy reccommendations, explicitly) the DOC refuses to release the info and we’ve exhausted appeals.
  • Answer:
    • The legal department has advised us not to release info about death reviews.”
  • Follow up action:
    • We need to file a writ of mandamus and/or sue the DOC under open records law. We’ve talked with a couple lawyers about this, but haven’t gotten connected with someone whose qualified and affordable, yet.

What is the new administration doing to address the serious problems with failure to protect people held in Wisconsin prisons?
  • Answer:
    • The DOC is creating an internal affairs unit, which will be more independent from other staff and will focus on being more responsive to complaints.
    • In the meantime, sending issues and incidents to Makda, as well as filing ICE complaints is the best option. She says she looks into each situation we alert her to.
    • As prisoner litigators stated in the last FFUP newsletter, exhausting all internal complaints processes (as meaningless as they may seem) is necessary to moving to a lawsuit. Molly said those complaints have alerted them to issues that they’ve acted on. Going through that exercise is a good idea to at least take this answer away from them.
  • Follow up action:
    • Peg is compiling intake reports on a monthly basis, which we’re forwarding to Makda and to elected officials who’ve agreed to do wellness checks.
    • In addition to filing an ICE complaint and writing to FFUP, incarcerated people who experience abuse can write to Makda at PO BOX 7925, Madison WI 53707-7925. That might get a faster response.
    • We plan to follow up with people whose situations we’ve contacted Makda about, to see if any positive action has been taken, or if they’ve experienced retaliation. There are more such situations than we’re currently able to handle, though.

Throughout the system, a recurring issue is the DOC practice of stealing of money from imprisoned people’s scarce income. Will DAI cease this practice?
  • Answer:
    • There is a new policy. Makda sent it to me, here it is:
      • The Inmate Trust System Deductions policy (309.45.02) is under revision. Prior to the posting of the revised policy, a change to the financial software is estimated to occur in late October/ mid. November 2019. One of the changes will create a cap on collection of priorities 25-29, similar to the cap on priorities 7-15. Priority types 25-29, which now includes Jail JOC 814, Fines, Court Costs, Other Imposed Surcharges (Statue 814), and Attorney Fees, will be deducted from the declining balance at 50% max.
      • Another change will affect accounts that have multiple Institution Restitution withholdings. The deduction will occur at 50% max from the declining balance. For example, if the account has 2 Institution Restitution withholdings, the program will deduct 50% of the declining balance, the program will not deduct 50% of the declining balance for all two withholdings.
      • Effective Nov. 1, the Division of Community Corrections (DCC) will no longer accept court ordered obligation payments from friends/family for persons currently incarcerated in an institution or center.
      • Payments will either need to be made directly to the court or follow the DAI process for sending/depositing money.”
  • Follow up action:
    • At a glance this looks like an at least partial improvement, but we’re sending it to incarcerated experts to get feedback on what more needs to be done.

In recent years, the DOC has created a false narrative of understaffing to justify expanding it’s budget and excusing lockdowns and all manner of instability. A closer look at actual staffing levels indicates that the problems with the DOC are not lack of guards but rather over-crowding, high turn-over, outsourcing of non-guard staff, and low morale.
  • Answer:
    • Makda said they’ve had a recruitment and retention problem with COs and other staff. They laughed at the idea that privatization was happening, and blamed the problems on being a public sector agency that can’t compete with private companies, who pay more and have signing bonuses.
    • Molly acknowledged a few times that nurses prefer to not work in a prison.
    • They’ve been working to find ways to “be more competitive”.
    • They’ve been hiring more agency staff as a stop-gap to staff shortages, which is where the contract numbers and amounts are growing. The legislative audit bureau has also raised this issue.
    • They’re doing a staffing analysis to determine what is really needed and how to make it work better. Makda says she’s looking deeper to find out why these problems are happening and try to fix it.
    • I raised the concern that increasing pay and incentives will only lure people into a harmful work environment. “People who’ve taken the hippocratic oath aren’t going to work in a place that is subjecting people to abuse and torture, so the real problem that needs to be addressed is conditions… and the core of that is overcrowding.
  • Follow up action:
    • I’ve been taking the Staffing, Crowding and Death report to legislators and arguing for decarceration. They’ve got more control of the things that are putting people into prison and keepting them there than Makda at DAI does.
    • We could also increase pressure on DCC to reduce revocations, which put most people back into the system. FFUP is active in that through the CLOSEmsdf campaign and individual advocacy and sharing of stories from people on supervision.

The real problem with conditions for both staff and captive is overcrowding. What can DAI do to help with that?
  • Answer:
    • There are very limited things DAI can do to address staffing, but they’re doing these:
      • 1. managing overcrowding better. Eliminating the use of boats so people aren’t sleeping on the floor.
        • Note: this means they’re sleeping in crowded dorm-style situations more often, and dayrooms or rec areas are being converted to dorms. It also means some solitary units are double-celling people, which we’ve heard causing hardship.
      • 2. The Bureau of Classification and Management (BOCM) is working to manage overcrowding better.
      • 3. DAI is working with Secretary Carr on expanding earned release.
      • 4. Carr has released at least one person on extraordinary release and is reviewing others.
      • 5. Parole chairman Tate is taking some risks.
  • Follow up action:
    • FFUP will continue working with CLOSEmsdf coalition to address revocations and reduce new incarcerations that way.
    • We’ve developed new parole criteria through a rules change petition working with people currently serving time under the old law. Chairman Tate has rejected this rules change and we’re working on increasing pressure on him to do so, and to take more “risks” by releasing more people. We’ll be at the parole commission meeting on Wed Nov 6, and building increased pressure on Tate to make these changes.
    • We have made a review of the legislative schedule, identifying every bill that will increase incarceration and those that otherwise deal with incarceration issues. We’ve been sharing it with legislators and will be grading people based on their votes on these bills.

What is DAI doing to address the culture of dehumanization, disrespect and callous disregard among staff in Wisconsin prisons?
  • Answer:
    • Makda has made improving this a personal goal for the department.
    • Throughout the meeting, she didn’t use the word offender or inmate, instead saying “men and women in our care”.
      • Note: this is an improvement, in that it humanizes people, so I didn’t push her on it, but I sorta cringe at this language too. It is inaccurate for the DOC to describe their captives as “in our care” because “care” and “confinement” are mutually exclusive things. Holding someone against their will is a deprivation that is inherently inconsistent with caring for them. At best, Makda’s phasing is aspirational and intended to influence staff (or isolate staff who refuse to align with it) but it will only have that effect if she uses it as consistently in her interactions with co-workers as she did in this meeting. Also, “men and women” excludes people whose gender expression or identity do not align with that binary.
    • Makda acknowledged that “offender” is still all over the statues and rules and stuff like that, which means its still being used in many places throughout the DOC, but they’re working on it.
    • Molly said that the communications office is very careful to not use dehumanizing language and someone on her staff actually gets very angry if reporters use the word “offender” because the DOC is intentional not to.
    • Makda said she’s putting people through implicit bias and cultural competency trainings, starting at the top and working her way down. Wardens have taken the trainings and are making them available to staff.
    • They’re cautious and putting in the effort to make these trainings “not scary” to sensitive (ie racist) employees because they’re worried about “buy in” from staff (as with solitary above).
      • Note: there is some history to these concerns. When Governor Doyle appointed reformers to head the DOC their staff actively and publicly called for their censure and removal.
    • They’re incorporating these concerns into hiring and promotion practices as well. Makda said this meeting happened in the middle of two days of interviews, so one advantage of staff turn-over might be accelerating cultural change.
    • Later on, they both talked a lot about medical improvements and education programs, particularly a nurse who runs a dialysis unit at one of the prisons, and the installation of wifi into some medical units, which lets doctors and nurses access patient and treatment info more efficiently.
    • They’re also working on improved education programs, especially a partnership with UW Madision at Oakhill called Odyssey. Molly said the DOC’s GED program has higher graduation rates than outside programs.
    • They’re working on getting special “secure” laptops because tablets are limited in what they can do.
  • Follow up action:
    • My sense is that Makda and Molly are genuinely interested in making these changes, but that the changes are sort of superficial. If DOC staff calls their captives “men and women in our care” all day long while still driving them to suicide its not real progress.
    • I also suspect that their concerns about staff push-back are grounded.
    • So, I think the better place to push is on staff more directly. Protesting AFSCME for their representation of guards is something we’ve done at labor day marches, but we could make more of a campaign about it.
What is the new administration doing to accommodate and give agency to queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people held in Wisconsin prisons?
  • Answer:
    • There is a transgender committee, led by Dr Kevin Kallas, the mental health director.
    • Makda did not know a lot about what they are doing. A mental health director being in charge of the transgender committee maybe gives the impression that DOC considers gender variance to be a disorder, which is a problem. I didn’t raise that concern in the meeting, but at one point Makda said transgender people tend to experience more hardship when incarcerated, so maybe at least she sees that as the reason.
  • Follow up action:
    • I will contact black and pink and see what their experience with this committee is, and what we can advocate to Makda for in the future.

Will you support people held in Wisconsin prisons having increased access to books and reading materials?
  • Answer:
    • Makda likes books and wants to increase access to them. She’s working on clarifying a policy to let used books in to all insitutions under certain guidelines.
    • I asked her to look into changing how receipts are handled from internet sellers (those that don’t include paper receipts have been getting rejected) and interlibrary loan. She said she’d examine that as part of the policy work that’s underway.
  • Follow up steps:
    • Wait for the policy to come out and share it with books to prisoners orgs nationally.

What has the new administration done to facilitate visitation and family contact?
  • Answer:
    • They’ve reduced the cost of phone, but increased email rates. They’re expanding access to kiosks and the number of kiosks. The new phone system increases the number of people on someone’s phone list.
    • I suggested at-home video visits and described some of what was possible in Ohio while I was living there.
    • Makda will also review the bussing policy that used to exist and see about improving it.
  • Follow up actions:
    • Bring more specific things, particularly people who are interested in working on visitation transportation to Makda’s attention.

Overall, Molly and Makda were enthusiastic about sharing more information with us about what changes are being made. We’ll be following up with them on these issues at our future meetings and hopefully getting more specific and solid demands met. In the meantime, we can expedite the circulation of developments through the FFUP newsletter and correspondence.

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