On the morning of December 17, 1997, as thirty protesters gathered in a parking lot in Boscobel, a small farm town isolated in the rural southwest corner of Wisconsin, police squad cars wheeled into the lot. Sheriff's deputies informed the demonstrators that signs and banners would not be permitted at the groundbreaking ceremony for the state's $44 million supermax prison.
"That's a clear violation of our first amendment rights," said Jackie Austin, head of Wisconsin Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants. Department of Corrections officials even tried to get the police to evict protesters who were dressed in mock prison outfits, with handcuffs and waist chains. The DOC "just didn't want any visible signs of opposition as the governor declared it to be a great day for the people of Wisconsin while the TV cameras rolled," Austin said.
Correctional administrators claim that the control-unit facility, where prisoners will be subjected to conditions Amnesty International has condemned and Human Rights Watch has found in violation of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, will house only those prisoners who endanger prison employees and other convicts. "We're concerned about the effects [incorrigible prisoners] have on other inmates," said Wisconsin DOC chief Michael Sullivan. "They get in the way of a well-run correctional system. We need to have total order."
But Jackie Austin says studies show that supermax prisons end up housing many prisoners who are not physically dangerous. "What you get are prison dissenters, jailhouse lawyers and others who hold prison administrators accountable for their actions," Austin said.
The Boscobel protesters are not alone in condemning the control-unit prison. State senator Fred Risser called the supermax facility "an aboveground dungeon" and said the project's cost "is not economically or socially justifiable."
Supermax critics also point out that each of the state's maximum and medium-security prisons already has a disciplinary-segregation building where control-unit conditions prevail. Stan Stojkovic, a professor of criminal justice at the UW--Milwaukee, called the new prison unnecessary. "To build a supermax prison here would be done in absence of any credible evidence that you need one," Stojkovic told a reporter.
The prison was originally planned to house 409 prisoners, but architects expanded the capacity to 509 cells after construction bids came in lower than expected. Security measures at the facility will be so stringent that no visitor will ever enter the actual prison. Instead, lawyers and family members will speak to prisoners over a video-conferencing system from the prison's gatehouse, after being subjected to retina scanning for positive identification. Among the prison's other features is an electrically-charged perimeter fence designed to electrocute would-be escapees. "If you touch it, you're toast," remarked governor Tommy Thompson.
At least 38 other states operate control-unit prisons.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Shepherd Express (Milwaukee), Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), The Progressive
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