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Bills Introduced To Improve Conditions in Wisconsin Jails and Prisons

“This is not the solution to mass incarceration,” Rep. Ryan Clancy stressed. “This is harm reduction to the incredible damage that we do inherently when we incarcerate people.”

A Green Bay Correctional Institution watch tower and guard. (Photo | Isiah Holmes),

In Wisconsin’s Capitol, a package of 17 bills aimed at improving conditions in the state’s incarceration facilities was introduced Thursday. Covering issues from hygiene to oversight and transparency, the proposals were crafted following recommendations from stakeholders including formerly incarcerated people and their families. The authors offered the legislation against a backdrop of at least two state prisons being locked down and reports of recent deaths among incarcerated people.

For those who gathered in the Capitol to announce the bills, the situation couldn’t be more dire. “From lockdowns to deaths in custody and protests, current prison conditions are at a breaking point,” the bills’ authors declared in a joint statement. “Today, we introduced legislation to address the unacceptable conditions for people in our custody across the state of Wisconsin. We know that a vast majority of people who are currently incarcerated will return to our communities. We owe it to those individuals and our communities to maintain correctional facilities that are humanely run and promote rehabilitation in an environment of basic dignity and respect.”

“Those who are closest to the issues are closest to the solutions,” said Rep. Darrin Madison (D-Milwaukee), one of the authors. In addition to activists, formerly incarcerated people and their families, Madison noted that correctional officers and staff from the Department of Correction (DOC) also provided input into the package.  Given the conditions in many jails and prisons across Wisconsin, he said, “The purpose of this bill package is to ensure that we have humane conditions for the people who are currently incarcerated, along with increasing oversight and transparency of our jails and prisons.” He decried  the conditions faced by many incarcerated people as “unacceptable,” adding, “The people who are incarcerated, alongside their families and even some victims, are calling for change.”

Rates of incarceration for Black and Native American residents in Wisconsin remain some of the highest nationally at 663 people per 100,000 according to data from Prison Policy Initiative. Over 20,000 people are held in DOC facilities, many of which have chronic problems with overcrowding and understaffing.

Many of the problems seen in state facilities are also found in local jails. The Milwaukee County Jail — where at least six people died over the last 15 months — has become a prime example. In September, 27 men held in the jail were charged after barricading themselves in a library area of the jail to protest the facility’s conditions. Sheriff deputies and correctional officers used batons and pepper spray to break up the protest. A local coalition of activists has continued pushing for transparency after repeated medical emergencies and deaths by suicide in the jail.

Kerrie Hirte spoke at the press conference about her daughter, 20-year-old Cylvia Thyrion, who died in the Milwaukee  jail last December. “She was incarcerated for 10 months without going to court,” said Hirte. “So she was never sentenced.”

Hirte said the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office has not been transparent about what goes on in the jail. “I called several times to find out how Cylvia was doing, they would tell me that they couldn’t give me all the information, even though she signed some paperwork,” she said. Thyrion, who had been held in solitary confinement, was found with pieces of a diaper given to her by the jail in her system. Investigators suggested that she had eaten the pieces, and said staff hadn’t intended to harm Thyrion.

Since her daughter’s death, Hirte says that many people have contacted her about conditions they have experienced, from food served rotten with maggots to excessive lockdowns and lack of mental health support. The state’s oldest prison in Waupun has been the subject of similar complaints. Three deaths have occurred there over the last four months as the prison has continued a “modified movement” or lockdown order.

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Kerrie Hirte, mother of Cylvia Thyrion, who died in the jail last December. (Screenshot | WisconsinEye) 

Kerrie Hirte, mother of Cylvia Thyrion, who died in the jail last December. (Screenshot | WisconsinEye)

Lawmakers said the legislation introduced Thursday was written to address many of these issues. One is a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban slavery in all forms in Wisconsin. Madison said he was surprised that carve-outs allowing slavery for people in jails and prisons had endured into the 21st century, in the form of prison labor at wages ranging from nothing to 40 cents an hour.

The proposed amendment would raise the minimum wage for incarcerated people to $2.33 an hour. “The year is 2023, and the fact that slavery is still legal here in the state of Wisconsin is unacceptable,” Madison said.

The bills also call for:

  • Culturally sensitive products and universal credit for incarcerated people.
  • Free feminine hygiene products.
  • Four baths with heated running water per week.
  • Two visits, including the ability to embrace a loved one for 20 seconds.
  • Required recreational activities for 7 hours a week, and structured programming for 14 hours per week.
  • More rights for people in solitary confinement including access to writing utensils, hygiene products, and 25-minute visitation privileges.
  • Electronic credits for emails, video calls, and other media.
  • Climate control to prevent overheating or hyper-cooling.
  • Outdoor time for state prison residents.
  • The creation of a public dashboard on solitary confinement, lockdowns, and complaints.
  • Access to jails and prisons by the public and legislators for oversight purposes.
  • Providing written documentation to incarcerated people explaining their rights under the U.S. and state constitutions and relevant laws.
  • A constitutional amendment giving county government oversight authority for jails, rather than leaving them to the county sheriff’s office.

Formerly incarcerated people, advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin and Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) and others contributed to the bills’ content.

“We are here today because conditions are dire within our institutions, both at the state level and at the county level where policies are often worse than at the state,” said Rep. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee). “Just in the last few months we’ve seen lockdowns, we’ve seen mass protests, and we’ve also seen preventable deaths.”

Clancy, who’s been a fierce critic of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s handling of the jail, said that he often hears “heartbreaking” accounts from incarcerated people. He recalled a person held at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility who told him,  “I just want to see the sky.”

The comment “nearly broke me,” said Clancy. “This person’s biggest priority was being able to see outside because it was so traumatic, and so disorientating, to be locked in a place where he wasn’t aware of the existence of anything else outside those walls.”

Clancy also said the legislation was not by itself being offered as comprehensive criminal justice reform.

“This is not the solution to mass incarceration,” he stressed. “This is harm reduction to the incredible damage that we do inherently when we incarcerate people.”

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.

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