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GBCI: Reform or brick-and-mortar issue?

As state and local legislators continue an ongoing conversation surrounding the future of the Green Bay Correctional Institution, much of the discussion revolves around the debate on what is needed most needed — brick and mortar or reform. Shane Fitzsimmons photo

By Kris Leonhardt


GREEN BAY – As state legislators continue an ongoing conversation surrounding the future of the Green Bay Correctional Institution, much of the discussion revolves around what is most needed — brick and mortar or reform.

It’s a debate that goes back 50 years.

In the early 1970s, Gov. Patrick Lucey commissioned a “Task Force on Offender Rehabilitation” to study prison reform.

When the final draft came in, so did a recommendation on closing the facility, along with other similar institutions, and replacing them with community-based treatment centers — a concept that Lucey supported.

A group called “Citizens United to Keep the Reformatory Open” formed shortly after, and petitions began circulating in the area, joining hundreds of cities around the state.

In July 1979, the reformatory was renamed the “Green Bay Correctional Institution.”

“The term correctional institution as a title is more in keeping with the modern, rehabilitative approach as opposed to the old, archaic term of reformatory,” Superintendent Elmer Cady stated, as he took the position as administrator of the Division of Corrections.

Fast forward to November 2023 and the same discussion is taking place.

“There is a path to closing facilities that we think is best which is creating criminal justice reform on a bipartisan basis that will lower our prison population to the point that it will enable us to seriously consider closing a facility that is the preferred direction,” Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr recently told the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.

“Now that’s over here. There are others who have another path that they would like to take, which involves the building of a new facility for upwards of $750 million. You know, that is another path that some might want to take. It’s not our preferred path, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for us to have a frank and honest discussion about how certain outcomes could be achieved that met the goals of all the parties involved.”

State Rep. David Steffens is calling for an “honest, real discussion about replacing a facility” backed by architectural and operational and engineering independent studies that indicate a closure is needed.

“The list of things that need to be done under their scenario will take probably 10 to 15 to 20 years to fully implement themselves, and that’s if they work at all. But remember that over the last decade, two decades we’ve had very little reduction in prison population, it’s remained pretty stable,” he told Fox 11 News during a recent Town Hall.

A Wisconsin “Prison Point-in-Time” report shows that the Wisconsin prison population has held steady over the last two decades.

A November 2020 Wisconsin DOC master facilities plan developed for the State of Wisconsin Division of Facilities Development and Management stated, “Due to the age of the (Waupun and Green Bay) facilities and their location on tight, walled sites, upgrades will be difficult, disruptive and costly. Unless upgrades include extensive demolition and reconstruction of existing housing, program and support services buildings, they will not begin to achieve the safety, security, efficiency and flexibility found in modern correctional institution design”

Studies indicate that 76% of the Green Bay facility needs remodeling or replacement.

A release from the governor’s office said that “decommissioning the site would require a substantial reduction in Wisconsin’s prison population while separate upgrade projects for acute capital needs are challenging to complete due to its existing building structures and would likely require razing and replacing existing structures.”

Addressing staff and safety concerns

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin DOC placed the Green Bay Correctional Institution on “modified movement” status due to lack of staff and safety concerns.

On Nov. 14, Carr announced “sweeping measures” to help ensure staff safety and restore “regular movement” at the institution, including pay increases.

“We’ve spent the last five years working to address the decade-long chronic staffing challenges we inherited at our correctional institutions because we want to ensure every person in these institutions is safe, whether they’re DOC employees or folks living in our care,” said Gov. Tony Evers.

“At the same time, we also want everyone in our care to have the support, programming and rehabilitation they need to be successful, and clearly adequate staffing resources is critical for that important work to continue.”

“Ensuring the safety of our correctional staff and the individuals in our care continues to be the Department of Corrections’ top priority,” Carr added. “I’m optimistic that with the steps we’re taking today and the pay raises the governor secured through the biennial budget that we will be able to continue our work of incrementally increasing safe movement and programming at our institutions with the necessary staffing resources.”

The department will identify potential capital planning options to consider “in the absence of a significant reduction in institution vacancy rates and chronic staffing pressure.”

“We will be closely monitoring these efforts and evaluating their effectiveness toward relieving staffing pressure, and I will accept the department’s recommendations for capital project options if these efforts are unsuccessful in reducing the vacancy rate and adequately improving staffing numbers given the structural challenges and limitations of our correctional institutions,” Evers stated.

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