Defund the Prisons (abridged version)

Wisconsin prison boss Kevin Carr has both publicly and privately requested that prisoner advocates and anti-prison organizers help him expand funding for programming and mental health treatment in the DOC’s budget.

We emphatically reject his call for help.

The 2021-23 state budget must reduce funding for the Wisconsin Prison System (DOC) by at least 50%. This can be achieved by:

  1. Drastic and immediate reductions to the number of people held captive in Wisconsin prisons. We demand half of Wisconsin’s prison captives be released, now.
  2. Closure of prisons, starting with facilities in Waupun, Green Bay, and downtown Milwaukee.
  3. Conversion of other facilities into workforce development and mental health care centers serving incarcerated people, but operated by (and funded through) the Departments of Workforce Development (DWD) and Health Services (DHS).


DISCLAIMER: this is an abridged version. If you want more information or evidence to back up our positions, please read the long version, a live document we will be expanding, which is much more thorough and sourced.

The DOC is an institution devoted to racially targeted torture, deprivation of liberty, and resource extraction. At every level, this system disproportionately impacts Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, and it has long been known to do so. Such things do not happen by accident.

The Wisconsin DOC serves white supremacy. The situation inside is getting worse, not better. Any funding given to the DOC and ear-marked for programming, rehabilitation, mental health treatment, or any other ameliorative purpose will be wasted or redirected to other, harmful purposes. DOC staff do not know how to do anything but hurt their captives.

Kevin Carr’s DOC has recently admitted to killing fourteen people with its failed COVID response. We have reason to believe that others have died of COVID, but they went uncounted. Kevin Carr has also admitted, both publicly and privately, that the internal culture of the DOC staff “still has a long way to go” and that he is trying to make changes, but “without disrupting too much.” We will not under any circumstances or for any reason help anyone who holds people in cages and kills them. No one should, ever.

What’s happening in Wisconsin prisons was a humanitarian crisis before COVID began. Now it is a full blown catastrophe, and its solution is an immediate reduction to the number of people within the DOC’s grip. Governor Evers promised this kind of reduction on the campaign trail, but has mostly failed to act on those promises. When he, Carr, or their staff are pressed about these failures, they mislead the public by exaggerating half-measures and passing the blame onto the state legislature and Republican leadership. However callous and partisan the legislature may be, the Wisconsin State Constitution does give the Governor powers, including broad and unrestricted pardon and clemency powers, which the legislature cannot touch. Evers knows this, yet has refused to grant or even consider a single clemency. He has pardoned people who are not currently imprisoned and puts out press releases about it with misleading headlines that prey on the public’s ignorance to suggest the pardons are somehow related to prison population reductions. They are not.

In addition to his pardon and clemency power, Governor Evers sets policies and priorities within governmental departments, including the DOC. Through his appointments and directives, Evers has a lot of discretion regarding enforcement and interpretation of the laws passed by the legislature.

DOC policy is a major driver of incarceration in Wisconsin. Everyone needs to understand that the DOC is operated by employees whose personal financial interest and job security are based on Wisconsin locking up as many people for as long as possible. The jobs of a reformist Governor and DOC Secretary are to stop them. Evers and Carr are, for the most part, failing that job.

Some mechanisms prevent the release of captives. For example, attempting to gain early release or parole depends on cooperation from DOC staff in the Bureau of [slur removed] Classification and Movement (BOCM). If someone meets other criteria for release, BOCM will often hold back their security level review, keeping them ineligible. Likewise, if what someone needs is completing a program, staff on their Program Review Committee (PRC) can put them on an endless waitlist, simply deny access to that programming, or arbitrarily fail them out of the program.

Guards often get in on the obstructive action as well. They increase the enforcement of petty rules against targeted people to render them ineligible for programs, or release. If they can’t find any rule violation, they step up harassment to provoke one, or simply fabricate it.

Other mechanisms drive up incarceration by pulling released people back into prison. The DOC’s community supervision division (DCC) monitors people who are incarcerated outside of the prison using electronic ankle shackles, meetings with DCC agents, threats of re-imprisonment, GPS systems, and other carceral technologies to hold them in their homes rather than in prisons. There are around 66,000 people experiencing this form of incarceration in Wisconsin. The DCC routinely moves them back into prison.

Imprisonments for technical rules violations, also known as crimeless revocations, account for almost 40% of new imprisonments in Wisconsin. Advocates and reform organizations have been focused on reducing this number since before Governor Evers was elected. Back then, his campaign staff recognized that having him go on record for prison reform was necessary to turn out Milwaukee voters. After he won, his office staff either forgot those promises or walked them back aggressively.

The Governor can make good on his promises without needing legislative approval by simply changing DCC policies. The needed changes have been articulated repeatedly by organizations across the political spectrum. Instead of implementing these changes, Governor Evers used cynical delaying tactics and misinformation.

As with BOCM and PRCs, DCC agents have a financial interest in maintaining high incarceration rates, so it should be no surprise that they often seek out minor pretexts to revocate someone who is nearly finished with their extended supervision. This keeps many–especially Black people from Milwaukee–regularly cycling back to imprisonment. Extended supervision is a rights-deprived second-class citizenship status, so DCC agents, by repeatedly extending supervision sentences for racially targeted populations are replicating southern segregationist policies on a smaller scale in Wisconsin.

There is no legal restriction to Secretary Carr or Governor Evers changing DCC policy and practices. They could have started in January of 2019. Instead, they allowed their employees to continue reinscribing segregationist policies. Governor Evers and Secretary Carr chose Jim Crow.

They keep making that choice. In the fall of 2020, nearly halfway through Evers’ first four year term, amidst a COVID-19 outbreak that’s infected more than a third of the imprisoned population, the DOC finally announced some modest reform intentions. Since March 2020 Kevin Carr has been saying he was already doing everything he could to reduce the captive population, which at that time, was rising. In early December he showed the lie of his previous statement by taking credit for 3,000 person population reduction in response to COVID19. At that same event, he shouted repeatedly  “we’re doing everything we can” at protesters who put body bags in his driveway. Then he told us about changes to revocation and ERP policy. Those changes are things he says might be implemented in 2021, or later. They are changes he could have made before March, when he was lying to us about having no options.

When Kevin Carr says he’s “doing everything he can” he is clearly feeling restrained by something. It is not the law, because, these are all things he can do within the law (and is very slowly doing). The thing restraining Secretary Carr from doing even modest cuts any faster is most likely his staff. The DOC relies on wardens, guards, DCC agents, BOCM and PRC admins to run Carr’s prison at all, and if he’s too aggressive with reform, he fears facing some kind of mutiny or direct non-compliance from them.

The DOC considers itself drastically understaffed and cannot hire people because most people are either too ethical or too squeamish to work for the prison system. There is a toxic feedback loop at work here; the only people who want to work for the DOC are people who have no problem locking up as many people for as long as possible, which results in an institutional self-perpetuation more powerful than the will of Secretary Carr or other reform-minded officials. It is a real problem, but that problem has a clear solution: cut the population, budget, and staff simultaneously and decisively.

At this point, we are often asked to specify which group of captives should get out first, or which criteria should be used to determine eligibility. We refuse that task. The fact that more than 80,000 people are incarcerated (whether in prison or on supervision) in Wisconsin in the first place is a result of some people standing in judgement of others and deciding their fate. That action is in fundamental conflict with our values. We disdain the work of judges, prosecutors, parole boards, prison administrators and will not join them in such dismal tasks.

Governor Evers campaigned hard to be Governor of this state. Secretary Carr and John Tate II accepted their appointments to run the DOC and the Parole Commission. These men can take on the responsibility and weight of denying someone release, of robbing families of their loved ones, and withholding forgiveness and compassion. That is their choice. We won’t spend our time making it easier for them. We will only demand that they stop deliberating and delaying. They must immediately reduce the prison population by 50%.

Empty the prisons, and close them.

Wisconsin calls most of its prisons “correctional institutions” which is a grotesque misnomer we will not be using here. The three prisons in most urgent need of closure are in Green Bay (GBCI), Waupun (WCI), and downtown Milwaukee (MSDF). GBCI and WCI are both deteriorating maximum security facilities over 120 years old. MSDF is a relatively new prison, but it was designed extremely poorly and with the purpose of facilitating the DCC’s racially targeted cycling of Milwaukee residents through revocations and sanctions.

Wisconsin’s prison system is still 116% overcrowded. The DOC’s current population is 20,500. The total design capacity is 17,643. These three untenable facilities are designed to hold 2,671, people, so once they are closed, the design capacity will be 14,952. Cutting the DOC population in half will bring it well below design capacity (down to 68%). Large staff reductions and other reforms will become possible at that point, including closure of other facilities.

Defund the DOC and transfer programming and treatment to DHS and DWD.

Many people languish in MSDF and across the Wisconsin prison system awaiting DOC programming that is bound to fail. Studies have shown that counseling, drug treatment, and other programming works best in the “least restrictive” conditions. Secretary Carr and DCC officials agree.

Lack of programming is a problem throughout the prison system, but the solution is not honoring Secretary Carr’s budget requests for more funding. The unfortunate 10,000 people who Tony Evers, Kevin Carr and John Tate II choose to continue holding captive are members of the public. They should be given the same programming by the same government agencies (DHS and DWD) that the rest of the public gets, in the least restrictive environment possible.

The DOC’s approach to mental health treatment is torture. They use reclassifications to bypass a rule against putting people with serious mental health conditions in solitary confinement. DOC psychiatrists routinely collude with guards to authorize the use of suicide watch and restraint chairs on captives that defy guards or are experiencing mental health crisis. Restraint chairs are devices designed to hold people in cramped positions of limited mobility for extended periods of time. This can be extraordinarily painful, and the practice has been frequently used as a coercive interrogation or torture technique. There are likely dozens of people spending the day or night in restraint chairs in Wisconsin prisons as you read this.

This is the “culture that has a long way to go” that Secretary Carr mentioned in May 2019. He has not been able to adjust it. In addition to the extraordinary abuse and mental health torture described in citations above there is also a pervasive and routine dehumanization going on. Given the widespread culture of utter disregard for the human beings they hold captive, it would be stupid to entrust the DOC with resources for job training, couselling or anything else. All of the bureaus, divisions, programs and agencies within the DOC that claim to handle these things should be entirely defunded and eliminated. Their operations should be taken over by other state departments that actually serve, treat, or train people. DWD should take over job training and DHS should cover mental health treatment and counselling. Facilities can be converted to these purposes and operated by DWD and DHS, with DOC providing minimal necessary security staff. Wisconsin already runs a DHS facility for incarcerated people (WRC). Every effort to minimize the role of the DOC is an effort to protect people from harm and advance treatment and training.

Cutting the DOC budget is possible.

The Wisconsin Governor has significant power regarding the budget process. In this state, the Governor proposes a budget, then the legislature amends it, or proposes and passes their own, then the Governor has the power to “line-item” veto individual funding proposals in that budget. So, even if Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald reject Evers’ proposed budget and push through one with loads of funding for new prisons, expanded supervision, and increased revocation infrastructure, Governor Evers can simply cross half the stuff out and make a 50% reduction to DOC’s funding. He should do so. Vos and Fitzgerald represent a tiny portion of this state’s population. They have extended themselves well beyond any mandate those voters give them. They are willfully ignorant of the DOC’s impact on Wisconsin residents and families, and seem to get off on seeing the people of Milwaukee suffer. Governor Evers has the power to bypass these trolls and keep his campaign promises, regardless of what the illegitimate, unrepresentative legislature tries to do. We can’t let Evers keep telling us otherwise.

Reducing the prison system will actually expand public safety because the prison system is a source of harm to the public. Prison policy in the US, and Wisconsin specifically, has been determined by politicians courting the white suburban voters with their perceived fears and ignorance. In reality, police and prison are very ineffective responses to violent crime.

Anyone whose authentic and well-informed primary concern is public safety should not choose prison and police to pursue that goal. Defunding these institutions frees up resources for programs like drug treatment, mental health counseling, affordable housing, healthcare subsidies and economic support. By helping people, those programs actually advance public safety.

All we need is a governor or a DOC secretary brave enough to recognize that they’ve inherited one of the most harmful, aggressive, and racially targeted prison systems in the world and to act accordingly. The COVID19 pandemic has turned the Wisconsin DOC’s humanitarian crisis into a full blown catastrophe. The right thing to do when you find yourself running a human rights catastrophe is to stop it, as soon as possible, using measures as drastic as needed. We are demanding that Evers and Carr do so, now.

Our goal is to remove 100% of the DOC’s funding and to abolish it. We want to free them all, but this budget cycle we aim at taking half. Nothing less than this will be acceptable. If Governor Evers and the State Legislature again expand DOC funding, they will make themselves Wisconsin’s enemy. A liberal politician who makes an agonized cowardly compromise to vote for prison expansion and a conservative politician who gleefully embraces that expansion produce the same result. Anyone who opposes a drastic reduction of Wisconsin’s prison budget is complicit in nothing short of a racially targeted human rights catastrophe.

And we will fight them. All of them, equally fiercely.

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