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Wisconsin Resists Out-of-State Transfers

In October, 1996, Wisconsin's legislature granted the Department of Corrections (WDOC) authorization to house 700 prisoners in Texas County Jails. WDOC Secretary Michael Sullivan overcame the opposition to that first prisoner-export proposal by assuring the public that the crossborder option was merely a stop-gap measure to address a temporary shortfall in prison capacity.

In December, 1998, the legislature voted to grant the WDOC funding to raise the number of prisoners Wisconsin houses in other states from 3000 to 3500. Wisconsin now leads the nation in the number of prisoners it houses in other jurisdictions.

The WDOC's prisoner-export business has not only exploded in size over two years, it's also picked up staying power. In a Joint Finance Committee hearing on the December funding request, Sullivan called the rental of prison cells in other states a "permanent fixture" of the Wisconsin Corrections system.

While the WDOC seems to think shipping prisoners to other states is a fine idea, many Wisconsinites disagree. Labor unions object because exporting prisoners also sends jobs out of state by spending part of the WDOC's budget on the salaries of construction workers and prison guards in other states. Friends and relatives of prisoners object because they don't want their loved ones kept so far from home that they can't visit. Prisoners themselves oppose the transfers because they don't like being separated from their loved ones and because the conditions in private prisons are often far worse than those in the public institutions.

In March, 1998, the WDOC began sending prisoners to a Tennessee prison owned by the Corrections Corporation of America. In May and June, officials at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution notified about one-third of the 1,000 prisoners at Fox Lake that they'd been selected for transfer to Tennessee. Even those Fox Lake prisoners who weren't chosen for transfer could see the writing on the wall; they knew they'd be likely to receive bus tickets for a subsequent out-of-state shipment.

At 5 p.m. on June 28, 1998, roughly 300 prisoners assembled on Fox Lake's recreation yard. The guards at Fox Lake conduct a head count at 5:45 p.m. every day, and prisoners are required to return to their housing units to be counted. But the convicts on the rec yard had decided not to appear for the count. To protest the out-of-state transfers, the prisoners were determined to occupy the rec field overnight.

Truckloads of riot-suited guards from other Wisconsin prisons arrived by 8 p.m., and the guards had all the protesters in restraints by 2 a.m. 155 prisoners were transferred to other institutions the following day. All the protesters received sentences to disciplinary segregation ranging from 120 to 360 days.

Energized by the Fox Lake demonstration, friends and relatives of prisoners who are subject to the exile program formed the Wisconsin Network to End the Transfers (WisNET). WisNET's first action was a press conference on the steps of the state capitol in July, announcing the group's goal of returning all Wisconsin prisoners held in other states. Since then, WisNET has held two demonstrations in Milwaukee, conducted community forums to get its message out and attract members, and participated in numerous media events to raise public awareness about the problems involved in sending prisoners to other states. WisNET leaders have appeared on talk radio shows around the state. On December 18, several WisNET members met with WDOC Secretary Sullivan.

The WDOC has announced that, in the coming year, it anticipates asking the legislature for money to rent space for an additional 4,500 prisoners in private facilities. Nancy Rost, director of WisNET, says the group's primary focus now is organizing mass opposition to this funding request. "Renting private prisons is a shortcut method of expanding our state prison system," Rost says, "and WisNET is completely opposed to more prisons."

Stop the Transfer of Prisoners (STOP) is another Wisconsin group opposing the state's use of private prisons. STOP spokesperson Eric Ruder says that unlike WisNET, which is made up mostly of prisoners' friends and relatives, STOP is concentrating on organizing resistance to the prisoner exports among the broader state population. "All working people get hurt by privatizing the prison system," says Ruder, who is a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 243. "The CCA is notorious for union busting. The money we send to the CCA would be much better used for union jobs in this state."

Martin Beil, head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, has also registered opposition to the use of private prisons, telling the state assembly's Corrections Facilities Committee that private prison firms are more interested in profit than public safety. "It's an attempt to shift responsibility from the administration and the legislature to people in business suits," Beil told the Committee.

Responding to the concerns of those who oppose exporting prisoners, state representative Frank Boyle (D-Superior) has drafted a bill requiring the return to Wisconsin of all the state's prisoners and prohibiting the use of private prisons. With the DOC pushing for more out-of-state transfers, the battle lines are drawn. WisNET's Nancy Rost says the anti-privatization forces are in it for the long haul: "We're not going to stop until we defeat the entire private-prison industry."

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ,Wisconsin State Journal

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