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Local leaders call for closure of GBCI at Madison roundtable

Vintage photo of the facility under construction
A building for 600 residents was to be ready by July 1, 1898, at a cost of $125,000.



Local officials joined forces last week and headed to Madison calling for the closing of the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI) in a roundtable discussion focused on making Wisconsin lawmakers aware of the significant issues facing the facility.

The discussion, facilitated by Allouez Village President Jim Rafter, included Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach, Brown County Sheriff Todd Delain, Rep. David Steffen and several advocates of those incarcerated at GBCI, was conducted with the hopes of presenting a united front and encouraging state leaders to make provisions for the decommissioning of the facility in the next state budget.

“We come from different political views, religious groups and backgrounds, but we all agree it is time for Green Bay Correctional Institution to close,” Rafter said, reading a statement prepared by the panel. “The facility has exhausted its lifespan and cannot provide those inside with the tools necessary to navigate a return to society. It is unsafe for the guards, the individuals houses there and the community where it resides. Numerous studies have shown that the facility is beyond repair. The question in front of all state officials right now is whether to do this in our timeline or wait until catastrophic failure at the facility forces a reaction. Lives are at stake. It is our leaders’ responsibility to act now to stop this crisis from getting out of hand. While we all have different ideas of what the future of the criminal justice system in Wisconsin looks like, it’s clear where we need to start. Green Bay Correctional Institution must be closed for the good of Wisconsin.”

In the last 15 years, GBCI has failed not one, but two separate studies.

“GBCI is unstable,” Steffen said. “It is unhealthy, it is unsafe and it is unsustainable. We can’t keep continuing this path… There have been two massive independent studies that have been done — one in 2009 and one in 2020 by two different companies, issued by two different governors of two different parties — and both of them came back with the same data. That facility needs to be closed. There is only 5% of GBCI that is not in need of repair. All of the major prison codes relating to construction and operation it has failed. It is in a dire state and it’s waiting for a major issue to happen.”

Rep. Steffen urged his fellow representatives and senators not to wait for that major issue to occur.

“One of the challenges is that most of the solutions that are being discussed and will be discussed either today or in the future take years in the making so we have to be proactive, which is rare in government…” he said. “There’s an old saying that democracies don’t move until there’s blood in the streets. I don’t want that to happen. We have an opportunity to do this different.”

Built in 1898, GBCI is now more than 120 years old, making it one of the oldest operating prisons in the nation.

“To put the age in perspective, GBCI is older than Alcatraz and Alcatraz has been closed for 60 years,” Steffen said. “Our two oldest prisons, we sometimes just talk about, ‘Oh, they’re 126 years old.’ There are less than 10 state prisons that are operating in the entire nation that have that type of age.”

Not only is the age of the building problematic in and of itself, but significant changes in best practices for correctional facilities over the last century mean GBCI was built to serve an entirely different purpose than modern prisons.

“[Construction] was done at a time when labor was really, really cheap and so having lots of people working in a prison, it was the best of jobs and the workforce was populous and available,” Steffen said. “So having a prison that required a lot of moving of people physically and handling them was okay. It made sense… And the period of time that GBCI was created, there was a very specific intent that was throughout the US on how prisons were supposed to be decided — a short period of time because it was quickly rejected. Both the prison in Waupun and GBCI were built in those times and the emphasis was maximum punishment through design. Maximum punishment through design achieved. Those are the realities of what we are dealing with.”

GBCI was not designed with rehabilitation in mind, but rather maximum punishment — something Dante Cottingham, former inmate at GBCI, said becomes rapidly apparent to those incarcerated there.

“To this day, I remember how it felt the first time that I was brought there,” Cottiingham said. “As I first approached the building… the reality of my surroundings became painfully clear. Then the sight of the aged building and cages within confused me. As a result, I intimately understand the crushing feeling of confinement that the brothers are still doing in there right now, this very second. How it attacks and chips away at their mind, at their heart, at their hopes. The term attack is a perfect description of what happens within GBCI with the over-reliance on confinement, the overcrowding and pushing men into space meant for one, the lack of adequate medical and psychological care, the unaddressed complaints… These are all assaults on the humanity of those incarcerated there. In the past year, lockdowns have only worsened these deplorable conditions with limited movement, restricted access to basic necessities and a decline in care. It is evident that Green Bay Correctional Institution has reached the point of irredeemability. No amount of temporary fixes can rectify the fundamental flaws that pervade the institution. The only solution to this human tragedy is to permanently close its doors. The time for change is now. We must not delay in taking action.”

GBCI’s website displays a purpose statement which reads, “GBCI strives to ensure the safety of the public, staff, and offenders by operating a safe, secure and humane institution. The institution provides offenders with opportunities to participate in meaningful programs and activities to increase successful reintegration into the community by preparing and guiding offenders in making necessary life changes, as well as helping with resources for essential reentry into society.”

These intentions, roundtable panelists said, are not and cannot be fulfilled at GBCI in its current state.

“I think it is incredibly wrong to have prisons that use maximum punishment by design to break and destroy these people who are in our prisons,” said Steve Warner, co-president of JOSHUA, an inmate advocacy group. “I think it is wrong to not allow these people to have access to the help that they need in prison. There are people who go who get sentenced to prison and they go thinking, ‘This is great.’ The family members think, ‘This is great. Now they’ll get the [alcohol and drug addiction] treatment that they need. Now they will get the help they need for mental health counseling.’ That is not happening. What happens in GBCI with the lockdown is these individuals… In the course of a week these men are allowed out of their cells one hour a week. That means they’re in their cells for their breakfasts, their lunches and their dinners.”

The lockdowns, Delain said, are influenced by chronic staffing shortages at GBCI — shortages which would not be so detrimental in a more modern facility.

“Staffing is something that we all face,” he said. “I face it as a sheriff trying to staff a jail. Certainly the Department of Corrections faces that every day as well. And when you look at trying to deal with staffing issues, it is critical that you look at the design of your facilities because new state-of-the-art facilities are able to provide opportunities for treatment and recreation for the inmates. And by recreation, I mean activities outside of just being in their cell — something that’s positive and decreases the tension in a facility… We now have the ability to operate correctional facilities and jails throughout the country with less staff than you would in old institutions… Technology has advanced tremendously.”

At a local level, Delain said efforts are being made to keep up with advances in technology and best practices as Brown County is already making plans to decommission and replace a jail less than half as old as GBCI.

“At the Brown County Jail, we have two different buildings,” Delain said. “We have one downtown and one over by UW-Green Bay. Our downtown facility was built in the ‘60s. It’s a linear design and we have already approved it locally with the county to talk about taking that building down because it does not meet our needs… It’s not desirable to house inmates in that facility… That’s a 1960s jail. We’re talking about a prison that was built before the turn of the century.”

Delain, Rafter, Steffen and all those who participated in last week’s roundtable are asking the state to follow suit and commit to closing GBCI.

“I was asked, ‘Why are we holding this event in Madison? It’s a Green Bay issue,’” Rafter said. “Closing Green Bay Correctional Institution is not a local issue. It is a state facility. Those who are incarcerated come from all over the state. It is funded by the state. The state provides the services to help these folks come back into society. It is a state issue. At a local level and with all of our partners, I think we’ve done everything we can to bring to the forefront the challenges that GBCI faces, but now we’ve kind of hit a roadblock. There are 133 people who work in Madison who can actually affect change. Those are our state senators, our state representatives and the governor of Wisconsin. So we thought we’d bring it to their place of work. That’s why we’re here.”

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