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Democratic lawmakers say bills will counter inhumane conditions in Wisconsin jails, prisons

Waupun Correctional Institution
The Waupun Correctional Institution on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, in Waupun, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Democratic lawmakers are introducing a package of legislation that they say will counter inhumane conditions in Wisconsin’s prisons and county jails.

The 17-bill package sets minimum standards for state prisons and county jails — tackling issues ranging from visitation to personal hygiene to prison labor.

The legislation comes a week after inmates at Waupun’s Correctional Institution filed a federal lawsuit, alleging conditions there amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

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The lawsuit says that includes rodent and roach infestations, showers being limited to once a week, “grossly inadequate” health care and the cutting off of family visits amid a nearly seven-month-long lockdown attributed to short staffing.

Advocates say, in recent months, at least three Wisconsin prisons — Waupun, Stanley and Green Bay — have been limiting movement and programming available to inmates under a type of department protocol referred to as “modified movement.”

No Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature had signed on to the proposals as of Thursday morning, when the bills began circulating for sponsorship.

Bills address living conditions ranging from personal hygiene to outdoor time to contact with loved ones

Among other provisions, the bills would require prisons and jails to provide menstrual products free of charge and to allow incarcerated people to bathe at least four times a week with heated running water. Another bill would set aside money so that prisons could install HVAC systems within the next decade to ensure cell temperature remain within 68 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit.

One proposal would require access to two in-person visitation sessions a week, and another would give inmates a credit so they could send a limited number of free emails or participate in a limited number of free phone calls or video visits each week. Currently, Wisconsin prisons charge inmates for phone calls and electronic messages, and local jails across the state charge varying rates for making calls. On average, it costs $3 to make a 15-minute phone call from a Wisconsin jail, according to a 2022 review by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Sponsors say other provisions would improve morale and security within prisons and jails, such as by requiring those institutions to provide minimum levels or structured programming and recreational opportunities.

“We want to ensure that folks have the support and tools that they need to reenter our society because we know, without them, the public safety of all of us is in jeopardy,” said Rep. Darrin Madison, D-Milwaukee.

Additional bills would require inmates to be able to spend time outside each week, and to be able to see the outdoors — at least through a window — for at least three hours each day. Yet another proposal would set standards for solitary confinement, including providing the people subjected to it with video visitation and with hygiene items like soap and a toothbrush.

“Make no ifs and or buts about it, solitary confinement is torture because of the degree of deprivation (from) being able to socialize with other people,” said Talib Akbar, a formerly incarcerated person and an activist against solitary confinement. “I’ve been locked down, so I know how rough it is.”

Kevin Hoffman, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit over conditions at Waupun. He didn’t say Thursday whether DOC leaders support or object to the legislative package, referred to as the “conditions of confinement” package by its supporters.

“We are aware of the proposals and have been working with the authors, but we have not yet reviewed the final versions,” Hoffman wrote in an email.

Groups supporting the package include the American Civil Liberties of Union of Wisconsin and Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing Wisconsin.

“Until we address the root cause of mass incarceration and stop caging people who shouldn’t be, the bare minimum we can do is respect their human dignity and improve the conditions of their incarceration,” said Jon McCray Jones, a policy analyst with the Wisconsin ACLU.

The package also includes two proposed Constitutional amendments — one that would grant authority to Wisconsin counties to oversee jails and another that would repeal a section of the Wisconsin Constitution that bans “slavery or involuntary servitude” except when it’s being used as punishment for a crime. Similar language exists in the U.S. Constitution. But, in recent years, seven states have removed language allowing slavery for incarcerated people from their state constitutions, according to the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.

Currently, the hundreds of prisoners who work for Wisconsin’s Bureau of Correctional Enterprises make a maximum of $1.61 an hour, according to an analysis provided by sponsors of the legislative package. Bills unveiled Thursday would mandate that people locked up in Wisconsin prisons, jails and county work camps be paid at least $2.33 an hour for working.