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Old Friends Only

The public pays $25,000 a year to keep each of Wisconsin's 9,500 adult prisoners locked away. Part of what society expects to get for that considerable investment is prisoners who are changed for the better by the time they get out.

One of the changes I've undergone during my stay in prison is that I have an entirely different circle of friends now. Over the course of fourteen years, I've lost touch with almost everyone I knew, other than family members, before I got locked up. My current acquaintances are an entirely new group, people from the outside who've taken an interest in my activities and ended up developing friendships with me. Given the sort of friends I associated with before coming to prison, the change is certainly a positive development.

That process of exchanging new friends for old is common to people who serve long prison sentences. But Gary McCaughtry, the warden at Waupun, has decided he no longer wants that process to work its course. Early this year, McCaughtry imposed a new rule saying that prisoners could receive visits only from people they knew before coming to prison.

For prisoners who mixed only with what some call "the criminal element" when they were on the streets, McCaughtry's rule guaranteed that they could not upgrade their choice of friends during their incarceration. Many religious groups, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, make a practice of visiting prisoners. McCaughtry's rule put an end to that. The rule also prevented prisoners from seeing children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews born after an inmate's prison term began.

For the past several months, people who submitted requests to have their names added to the approved visiting lists of Waupun prisoners were having those requests denied on the grounds that the would-be visitors had not known the prisoner prior to his incarceration. It's well accepted that building connections with the community is vital to prisoners for turning their lives around, but Waupun officials deliberately turned away community members who wanted to visit, relegating prisoners to the company of their fellow convicts.

In addition to being absurd, McCaughtry's rule is illegal. State law expressly says that knowing a prisoner prior to incarceration is not a requirement for being approved to visit. Waupun prisoners filed numerous administrative grievances pointing out the rule's illegality, but prison officials, as always, paid no heed to the law or inmate complaints.

Fortunately, Madison attorney, Gillam Kerley filed a civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of a woman who'd been denied permission to visit a Waupun inmate. McCaughtry's rule was recently scrapped as a result of the suit, and the visitors who'd been turned away have now been allowed into the prison. But it took a lawsuit to force McCaughtry to do what he should have been doing all along.

Because McCaughtry violated the civil rights of inmates and visitors by illegally denying permission to visit, the Department of Corrections must now pay Kerley's legal fees of three to four thousand dollars. State officials probably spent a like amount paying the lawyers who represented the DOC in the case.

So why on earth would the warden of Waupun impose a clearly illegal rule, discourage inmate contact with the out-side world, and waste thousands of tax dollars defending such an illegal and misguided policy? Because that happens to be standard DOC operating procedure. I've witnessed prison officials play out the exact scenario time and time again. They enact oppressive, arbitrary and illegal rules that make no sense and actually work against the rehabilitation of prisoners. Then they refuse to abandon the rules until someone goes to the trouble and expense of convincing a judge to order the agency to fly right.

DOC officials feel free to manage their agency incompetently because they are subjected to almost no scrutiny. Any criticism of prison administrators tends to get dismissed as being soft on criminals. That's ridiculous, though, since no one in the public discourse these days advocates making things easy for prisoners. The public definitely needs to increase its awareness of what's going on within the DOC to ensure that our huge investment of tax money in the prison system is being administered in a manner designed to benefit society by rehabilitating offenders. Absent that sort of public scrutiny, Wisconsin prison officials are currently running amok.

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