Group calls for prison changes; State to begin new discipline policies

Group calls for prison changes; State to begin new discipline policies

A faith-based group is calling for change in Wisconsin prisons, and some change may be happening as soon as early next year.

WISDOM, a coalition of religious organizations, met in a packed room at the Capitol Wednesday to talk about its plan to reduce the prison population by half — to 11,000 —  by the end of 2015. They want increased funding for treatment alternatives and diversion programs, the release of thousands of inmates eligible for parole, and changes in policies for those sent back to prison for technical violations on probation.

“We are here to explain to the people in this building that we have a blueprint for change,” said Rev. Jerry Hancock, of First Congregational Church. “This is not rocket science.”

They also want to end the use of solitary confinement in prisons, saying it is inhumane.

“We are putting them inside very small cells, sometimes for 24 hours a day,” said Rev. Kate Edwards, a Buddhist chaplain.

Both a memo and internal emails published by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Wednesday show concerns over the use of solitary confinement, and mention a change in policy on the horizon.

A September memo from a prison administrator said new disciplinary rules would go into effect in January and that “long-term segregation placements have been shown to be ineffective in terms of discipline and do not serve our corrective or rehabilitative goals.”

While the new rules will take effect in January, it’s unclear what their practical effect will be, and the Department of Corrections did not respond to News 3’s requests for clarification.

Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Wall also expressed concerns in both an article he sent to staff in April and a list of thoughts on solitary confinement issues he emailed in late June.

In one part, Wall said, “Segregation has turned in some cases to a method to isolate and punish inmates as a form of internal judge, jury and executioner. Depriving people of outside contact, personal property, programming, etc. seems to focus on doing psychological harm rather than achieve desirable goals.”

Wall detailed a story about a security director who sent an inmate to solitary confinement for 180 days “for having kitchen spices in his cell.”

“How many others are doing something similar?” Wall asked in the note. “Our culture may be our worst enemy in this regard.”

Edwards, who has been shining a light on solitary issues at the Capitol, said Wall’s statement and the new policy aren’t enough.

“The new rules still have 36 violations which get you 360 days in solitary confinement,” Edwards said. “They are making small steps, yes. But there are still enormous changes that need to happen.”