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Local leaders call for more conversation regarding GBCI

The DOC said that the vacancy rate for correctional officers and sergeants across DOC is about 18% as compared to 35% last August. File photo

By Kris Leonhardt/Janelle Fisher

Press Times staff

ALLOUEZ – Following an April roundtable at the state Capitol, local leaders are calling for more conversation with those at the state level regarding conditions at the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI).

In a joint letter to Gov. Tony Evers, Allouez Village President Jim Rafter, Brown County Executive Troy Streckenbach and Brown County Sheriff Todd Delain expressed the need for further talks between state and local officials.

“As leaders in Brown County, we understand the pressures that face elected officials daily. Our constituents rely on us to conduct government business efficiently, be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and provide care for those we serve each day,” the letter stated.

“We are concerned by the absence of a comprehensive plan for the closure of Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI). This facility, older than Alcatraz and well past its operational life, no longer serves our community’s needs and poses a significant safety risk.

“Recently, the three of us participated in a roundtable at the Capitol that featured Republicans, Democrats, criminal justice reform advocates, and experts in prison development who all had the same message: the time to act on closing GBCI is now.”

The group also applauded the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) for their work in improving conditions at GBCI.

“Pay increases for correctional workers by the state have had some positive impact on the situation at our state’s correctional facilities, and we commend you for that. But it isn’t enough to address the overcrowded conditions, lack of adequate mental health services, and failing structure of our century-old prison,” the letter added.

DOC Director of Communications Beth Hardtke said that the vacancy rate for correctional officers has greatly improved over the past months.

“Overall the vacancy rate for correctional officers and sergeants across DOC is about 18% as compared to 35% last August. Much of the improvement can be traced to the new compensation plan Governor Evers proposed in his biennial budget and approved by the state Legislature. The plan set starting pay for correctional officers at $33 an hour and as high as $41 an hour with add-ons,” Hardtke stated.

“After the compensation plan was approved, DOC experienced an influx of applications and recent months have seen the department’s largest ever training academy.”

In addition to returning to normal operations, Hardtke said that other positive improvements have been made.

“GBCI was one of the first institutions to receive new electronic tablets for all persons in our care. The new tablets – which are provided free to each person in our care – offer a secure way for phone calls and messages to be sent to friends and family. The program was designed to help persons in our care maintain and strengthen communication with their families and friends,” she said.

“With the tablets, it is no longer necessary for persons in our care to wait for a turn at a shared phone in their housing unit.

“The Department of Corrections (DOC) has seen tremendous growth in the number of minutes persons in our care spend communicating with friends and family. At GBCI, for example, the number of minutes spent on phone calls grew by more than 199% when comparing a two-week period in February before the tablets were distributed to a two-week period in March after the tablets were received.”

But local leaders are calling for much more.

“We believe that the only solution, which we gladly will be a part of, is shutting down Green Bay Correctional,” the letter to Evers stated.

“We’re calling for you to schedule a visit to Green Bay and engage in a discussion with local leaders, Republican and Democratic legislators from Madison, and your administration on a path forward —including a commitment in your next state budget that sets a timeline for the closure of GBCI and provides the DOC with the necessary funding to begin this process.”

Evers responded to the letter from local leaders stating that it was “irresponsible and untrue” to suggest that the age of the facility poses a safety risk to the community

“In fact, GBCI has several state-of-the-art security features that have been carefully retrofitted, coupled with intensive manual observation and patrol. Staff assaults dropped by 27% between fiscal year 2022 and 2023 and are on track to be similar in fiscal year 2024. Additionally, conduct report numbers at the institution have decreased in March and April of 2024 when compared to the same time frame in 2023,” Ever said.

“I have been clear that any plan to close GBCI must be comprehensive and considered holistically based on the needs of Wisconsin’s adult corrections program. GBCI is not the only facility within DAI that is aging or over its design capacity. Estimates for upgrading some of Wisconsin’s other correctional institutions to maximum security range from $300 to $400 million, let alone the cost of closing a maximum-security facility and building an entirely new one. As governor, I do not have the luxury of considering the future of a particular facility in a silo; I do not have the luxury of engaging in a conversation about closing a facility in a vacuum while refusing to consider what comes thereafter or acknowledge how it will impact and affect the needs and capacities of Wisconsin’s other correctional institutions.

“Constructing a new facility is not a light-switch plan with immediate outcomes; a new facility would not realistically be able to even begin to accommodate people in our care in this decade. There must be a serious conversation about criminal justice reform in Wisconsin and a meaningful effort to join states across the country in reaching bipartisan consensus for evidence-based, science-driven measures to safely and responsibly reduce Wisconsin’s prison population with a focus on treatment and rehabilitation. Any conversation about closing GBCI must begin there.”

Evers added that a portion of DOC’s adult facility planning is wrapped up in closing the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lakes facilities and transitioning them to an adult institution.

“While my administration has worked expeditiously to close those schools and get kids closer to home as quickly and safely as possible, we have run into numerous roadblocks created by the Legislature,” he said.

But, local leaders want further action now.

“GBCI is structurally and operationally failing. As it takes at least four years to site, design and build a replacement facility, the time to show responsible leadership is now,” Rep. David Steffen said.

“It’s astonishing that even with overwhelming evidence of the structure’s failing condition and a community that is consistently voicing its concerns over this issue, the governor still refuses to take action.”

 “We need to sit down and talk. We all agree that the place is in bad condition and needs to be replaced. No one’s talking to each other,” Rafter said.

“The things that I am saying are exactly what I am hearing from ex-inmates, ex-guards, family members of currently incarcerated folks. So, I am not trying to sensationalize anything. It’s just that is what I am being told and no one at the state level is talking to us. So, we need to have those conversations.”

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