Gov. Scott Walker has spent 25 years charting a dangerous, racist course on corrections policy in the state of Wisconsin, singularly serving as the politician most responsible for the catastrophe the adult and juvenile incarcerations across Wisconsin have become.
With prison reform in the news and Walker’s own campaign attempting to demagogue on the issue, a fuller examination of his record is warranted.
Wisconsin’s criminal justice system is a case study in institutional racism, incarcerating African Americans at the highest rate in the nation and maintaining a prison population more than double neighboring Minnesota’s — a state comparable to Wisconsin in population and demographics.
The Corrections Department is eating up an ever-increasing share of the state budget, using up more more general purpose tax dollars than the University of Wisconsin system. And, with political considerations instead of sound policy as the guiding principles of the Walker administration, it is a mismanaged fiscal albatross.
The story begins with Assembly Representative Walker, an ambitious young legislator, chairing the Assembly’s Corrections Committee with crime as an ascendant issue of the day. It continues to present day with Walker as Governor and as a candidate obsessed with his own political viability facing perhaps the sternest test of survival he has faced in his quarter century in office. Walker is unsurprisingly doubling down on demagoguery.
The following briefly outlines what we as a state now reap from what Scott Walker has sown:
In the current two year budget, the state of Wisconsin will spend nearly $2.5 billion on the prisons and corrections system. More general fund tax dollars (GPR) will go to the department whose primary mission is incarcerating people than will be spent on the University of Wisconsin System.
It’s going to get worse, on the course Scott Walker has charted for Wisconsin. In the recently submitted budget request for 2019-21, the Walker administration’s Department of Corrections is seeking an increase in their budget of over 6 percent that would push total spending on the system over $2.7 billion in the next state budget.
MISMANAGEMENT & NEGLECT
Stories continue to appear regarding shocking abuse of residents and unsafe working conditions for staff at the Lincoln Hills juvenile correctional facility on Scott Walker’s watch. The state has settled lawsuits over both the harsh policies — strip searches, extended periods in solitary confinement and use of pepper spray — directed at residents of the facility and treatment, or lack thereof, of individuals resulting in grievous injuries.
Ed Wall, a former Secretary of the Department of Corrections and high ranking official at the Department of Justice, has written a book detailing his experiences as a member of the Walker administration that range from indifference and neglect to mismanagement, denial and avoidance of the serious challenges facing the system. For example, Wall recounts that he was barred from meeting with Walker to discuss his department budget. Walker was running for president and with the Lincoln Hills scandal ongoing he was told, “We can’t have you or the DOC anywhere near him right now …”
The revelations made by Wall in his novel were followed up by Walker himself when he, the architect of Wisconsin’s bloated prison population, declared there was “no value” to him visiting as correctional facility as governor. The galling statement was made at a press conference at which Walker was personally launching a demagogic attack on Democrats for agreeing with reform advocates that reducing the state prison population is a worthy goal.
Wall has also alleged that Walker spiked an independent review of Lincoln Hills that he had requested as Secretary of the Department of Corrections.
Numerous other issues have plagued the department including poor working conditions, staffing shortages and crushing overtime and a lax attitude to investigating instances of sexual harassment of employees. A recent report from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau report found that the department lacks current information like home address or employment for nearly 3,000 registered sex offenders who are supposed to be under their supervision.
DEMAGOGUERY AND POLITICS
While Scott Walker may have dodged associating with the Department of Corrections as part-time Governor and full-time candidate for president, he has not shied away from politicizing prison policy over his career, engaging in fear mongering, racist demagoguery and leveraging policy into campaign cash.
Consider for example how Walker, as an up and coming suburban Milwaukee politician seeking to rise through the ranks, positioned himself to appeal to the “tough on crime” crowd when phrases like “superpredators” were used to describe juveniles convicted of crimes — he literally sponsored a bill to rewrite the juvenile criminal code bill that would have allowed children as young as ten to be tried in adult court for certain crimes.
Walker also authored 1995 AB 1018, providing $50 million in state bond funding for prison construction, paving the way for the $47.5 million, 500-unit Supermax Correctional Institute near Boscobel. He emphasized the need for new prison capacity and “super-maximum-security” units. The inhumane treatment of prisoners at the facility was the subject of a federal lawsuit, resulting in a settlement requiring the state to change the conditions in which inmates at the Walker facilitated “supermax” were held.
As reports of inhumane treatment filtered out, Walker, as chair of the Assembly Corrections Committee was working to stall hearings requested by Democrats agitating for reform as reports of the appalling conditions at the facility leaked out. [Wisconsin State Journal, 11/1/2001]
Walker also, as a member of the State Assembly and chair of the Corrections Committee, co-authored “truth in sentencing” legislation. The measure was sold as ensuring criminals served their entire sentence behind bars by eliminating parole. Related legislation revising sentencing guidelines to account for the new requirements eliminating parole and mandating terms of post incarceration extended supervision was not enacted.
With only half the job getting done because ambitious politicians like Scott Walker wanted no part of anything that could be construed as reducing criminal penalties, prison costs continued to rise unchecked.
But overflowing prisons were not a problem, but an opportunity for Scott Walker. In 1999 when it was revealed Walker, the pro-prison privatization Chair of the Assembly Corrections Committee, had taken money from the prison privatization outfit Corrections Corporation of America, he expressed surprise it had taken so long for the discovery to be made. He said, “Quite frankly, I was surprised that if he was going to give, he hadn’t given earlier. I’ve been a private-prison advocate for some time.” [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2/18/1999]
His staunch support for privatization of prisons did not end at the Wisconsin state line. He praised the private prison guards working for his benefactor CCA in Tennessee for handling a prison disturbance there at a facility that housed Wisconsin inmates. The prison workers sprayed tear gas on a dozen inmates who took and attacked hostages inside the prison in protest of their conditions. Walker praised the guards’ handling of the situation as a reason to keep outsourcing prisoners. “I would think if anything, the way the prison staff responded to the disturbance would suggest we want to continue holding inmates in that facility. It sounds like they handled it by the book.” [Associated Press, 12/1/1999]
Eight employees were dismissed after a Tennessee investigation discovered evidence of inmate abuse and inmates filed abuse charges against the company in a federal court claiming they were beaten, shocked and sexually abused at the Whiteville, Tennessee Prison. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 12/2/1999]
Walker also wanted to host inmates from other states in private facilities located in Wisconsin, authoring AB 519 in 1999. The legislation would have allowed privately operated prisons in Wisconsin to house prisoners from other states.
Walker’s pro-prison privatization obsession dotted his eight years as Milwaukee County Executive, his stepping stone to the governor’s mansion. Prior to his re-election to a second full term, Walker proposed privatizing prison transportation through a subsidiary of CCA, a move that was summarily rejected by the Milwaukee County Board. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 10/17/2007]
Walker’s entirely political approach to prison policy is neatly encapsulated by his refusal to issue pardons as governor. More interested in protecting himself from the possibility of a vulnerability, Walker has refused to fill positions on a pardon advisory board and has maintained a blanket anti-pardon policy, refusing to issue a single one, regardless of circumstances, since taking office.
Now in the face of a stiff electoral challenge, Scott Walker is going back to what he knows. Having failed to improve his electoral prospects after he and his allies spent millions of dollars on unanswered television ads, Walker is personally turning to negative campaigning with ploys to stoke racial fears and division.
At a press conference the week before the primary election to select his opponent Walker personally charged that Democrats would release thousands of violent felons stating, falsely, “When it comes to violent criminals in prison, I want to keep them in — my opponents want to let them out.” The demagoguery didn’t stop there as Walker’s campaign hit the airwaves with a television ad making the same, misleading charge.
In the 1990s, newly-elected Scott Walker was the lead soldier in the Assembly for the explosion of Corrections spending. As Governor, Scott Walker’s budgets spend more on prisons than universities. Now, as even former Gov. Tommy Thompson has recanted his past support of the disastrous prison policies he and Walker imposed on Wisconsin, candidate Walker defends his policies and doubles down by peddling racism and fear.
It is abundantly clear the only thing 25-year politician Scott Walker cares about keeping safe is his his own job.