Prison reform and efforts to close GBCI discussed
By Lauren Waters
ALLOUEZ – St. Matthew Parish was packed with community members Thursday, Nov. 21, wanting to hear about efforts to close Green Bay Correctional Institute (GBCI).
The conversation was hosted by JOSHUA, a faith-based organization dedicated to social justice and community building in Brown County.
Members from WISDOM, which is the statewide organization JOSHUA is part of, and EXPO (Ex-incarcerated Persons Organizing) gave speeches on prison reform and the reasons why GBCI should be closed.
David Liners, executive director of WISDOM, said there’s no question about whether or not the 121-year old prison should be shut down.
“The real question is do we need to build a new prison when we close it?” he said. “And that answer is no.”
Liners said there are thousands of people in Wisconsin prisons who shouldn’t be there.
He said approximately 3,000 people were sentenced under a different set of laws who are eligible for parole and most of them should be released.
Liners said about 5,000 people in Wisconsin prisons are there without being convicted of a new crime, such as those who break the rules of their parole.
“Other states that have seriously reduced their prison populations have done it by cutting back dramatically on these crimeless revocations,” he said. “This is the most popular way to do it, and we could do it, too.”
He said a replacement prison would cost between $300-$500 million to build and at least $30-$40 million a year to operate.
If the state reduces the prison population, Liners said Wisconsin would save at least $1 billion over the next 20 years from not having to build a replacement prison.
“Let’s invest that $50 million every year into the programs that will actually help and that are going to make a difference,” he said. “We’re not going to have a problem with prison overcrowding anymore. We’re going to have the problem of trying to figure out which one is the next one to close.”
If GBCI closes, the inmates would be transferred to another prison, which, Carl Fields, community organizer with EXPO, said happens all the time.
Fields spent a decade in the prison system and was moved around several times, but when he wanted to be transferred to a prison with better programs and more options, he said he had to wait years.
“They move people around when they need to, and then they make excuses for why they can’t,” he said. “This is one of the cogs in the system.”
Fields said it’s not simply a matter of fighting to close a prison or even about the money, it’s about reform.
“We’re fighting for redemption, and we’re fighting for rehabilitation,” he said. “We’re fighting for people to get their lives back and for neighborhoods to feel safer with those people in it.”
Sarah Ferber, associate director of EXPO, spoke about the importance of alternatives to prison for those who need treatment for substance abuse problems or mental health issues.
Ferber was allowed to go through treatment courts instead of the traditional court system.
She said this alternative gave her opportunities such as outpatient treatment, finding housing and a job, getting her into school and more.
“It’s about making sure we’re investing in our people, not just locking people up and throwing away the key,” she said. “Jail or prison shouldn’t be the first response. It should be the absolute last response we have.”
Local elected officials also spoke during the event, such as State Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) and Allouez Village President Jim Rafter.
Rafter said during a recent tour of GBCI with Gov. Tony Evers and Secretary of the Department of Corrections Kevin Carr, he learned 55 percent of inmates there need mental health support.
“It would be nice to have fewer people in prisons and to be able to provide the types of programs they need,” said Rafter. “It would also be nice to give 60 acres of land to the Village of Allouez to create a very special place for those who live in the community to come be a part of the community.”