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Wages, Staffing Struggles Dominate Discussion of State Prison System Budget

Credit: iStock

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner

Nearly one-third of the jobs at Wisconsin prisons are vacant, and some facilities have only half the number of employees on their roster that they are authorized, the head of the Department of Corrections (DOC) told state lawmakers Tuesday.

In the lead-off hearing for the state’s 2023-25 budget before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said a series of pay hikes that Gov. Tony Evers has proposed could help the department as it works to bring staffing up to levels it is supposed to have.

Temporary hikes that added $4 an hour to prison security staff paychecks and $6 an hour for maximum security facility staff would continue under Evers’ budget proposal, with the supplemental pay rolled into their base wages, Carr said. 

In addition, Evers has proposed raising the starting wage for correctional officers by 50%, to $33 per hour from $20.29. For officers with 25 or more years on the job, wages would go up to $39 per hour.

“If we don’t have the staff to provide the conditions that promote rehabilitation, as well as the treatment, education and programming that will improve the chances of people not returning to prison, it will cost taxpayers more in the long run in higher crime and a higher prison population,” Carr said. 

Carr also discussed provisions in the budget that aim to reduce the prison system’s population, now more than 20,000 people, by providing job training, treatment and alternatives to returning people to prison. And he highlighted the department’s plan for a second youth prison to join one planned in Milwaukee to replace Lincoln Hills, marked for closure by legislation passed in 2017.

The Milwaukee facility will house 32 people, almost half of the Lincoln Hills population. DOC has chosen Dane County, where the second-highest number of incarcerated juveniles come from, for a second facility, said Carr. 

The department has identified a site on land the state already owns neighboring Grow Academy, an alternative residential site for youth offenders in the Town of Oregon. If included in the budget, he said it could be ready in about four years. 

Like the Milwaukee facility, it would house up to 32 residents. “We wouldn’t want to do anything more than the current size because it’s not a recommended best practice to create an institutionalized environment,” Carr said.

The department’s hiring challenges and potential solutions took up much of Tuesday’s hearing, however.

In a 2022 DOC survey, two-thirds of the department’s employees said they found their jobs rewarding and that they made a difference. But nearly half — 44% — said they wouldn’t recommend working at the DOC to others. Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) asked Carr about that apparent disparity and what the department could do to encourage more of its employees to recommend it as a workplace.

Carr called “the quality of life they are experiencing and having to work so many hours” as a result of understaffing the primary reason so many workers wouldn’t encourage others to work at the department. “Many people liked the work,” he said. “They just don’t like doing so much of it. And that is the problem.”

Prison system employees “got into this to help people,” he continued. “They love helping people. But we’re working them to death. And when you experience a quality of life that is so poor, that all you do is work and you don’t have any time to spend with your family or to participate in family events or enjoy recreation because you are working 72 hours a week, it’s hard to recommend that to someone you care about.”

Incarcerated people need recreation, treatment, training that prepares them for life back outside — all “things that we are obligated to provide people so that the persons in our care have a decent quality of life as well, and they are rehabilitated so that when they return to their communities, they are better prepared to live crime-free lives and not come back to prison and cost us $44,000 to $55,000 a year,” Carr said.

Without adequate staffing, however, the prison system can’t provide those services to prisoners, he added. The DOC has responded “by modifying our operations in a way that requires the persons in our care to spend more time locked up in their cells.”

But Rep. Alex Dallman (R-Green Lake) said constituents who work in the prison system have told him they were unhappy with how the system was being run. They have complained that “the tools are being taken away from the correctional officers,” Dallman said. 

Employees have told him they have been blocked from imposing discipline, such as restrictive housing in the prison — which then results in “their supervisors saying that we’ve had success in decreasing the amount of [bad] conduct reports that are being put in,” he added. “But the reason they’re not being put in is because the correctional officers don’t believe that they’re being listened to, or they’re getting the tools taken away from them.”

Dallman also said he’s been told that DOC morale has fallen “because of the results in what’s being given from the top — not being able to call an inmate an inmate or, or being reprimanded for not calling them a person in our care, different things like that.” 

Carr said restrictive housing remains available as a disciplinary measure “especially if a person in our care deserves to go to restrictive housing.” 

He also defended changes in prison practices that encourage rehabilitation. DOC is “trying to change the culture in our agency from one that has been based on punitive management philosophies to one that’s more rehabilitative. That is what the science shows will work,” he said. 

“Now we have a lot of folks who won’t want to change, who like the old-fashioned way of doing corrections, but corrections is a profession,” he added. “And sometimes people don’t want to change. But sometimes you have to drag them along kicking and screaming, whether they want to change or not, because it’s in the best interest of the taxpayer, in the long run, in reducing crime, and that it’s in the best interest of the people that we’re trying to help change their lives.”

Questioned later along the same lines, Carr reiterated the department’s aim to get away from “just warehousing people” and to focus instead on giving people in prison “opportunities to change, providing them with appropriate programming and treating them like human beings.”

He also pushed back on a  reference reiterated by Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) to an employee disciplined “for calling someone an inmate instead of a person in our care.”

“I’ve never seen that happen,” Carr said. “I’m not even aware that that’s a rule violation.” Using the term “people in our care” instead of “inmate” or “prisoner” was never put in writing as an order, he added. “We simply started doing it and modeling the behavior, hoping that people would pick up on it.”

This story was written by Erik Gunn, Deputy Editor at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.