Skip navigation

Blueprint to Ending Mass Incarceration in Wisconsin, WISDOM, 2014

Download original document:
Brief thumbnail
This text is machine-read, and may contain errors. Check the original document to verify accuracy.


communities, being taken away to jail or prison is
more common than being sent off to college. The prison population in this state has more than tripled since
1990, burdening taxpayers, compromising public safety and hindering justice.
Wisconsin’s overuse of jails and prisons is out of control. WISDOM and its local affiliates around the state
have worked to lower incarceration rates, most recently with the 11X15 Campaign to decrease prison population to 11,000 by the end of 2015. The campaign

continues as we study and reveal disturbing breakdowns in the prison system. This document serves to
illuminate failures and opportunities, share personal
stories and demand reform in 2015 by offering practical solutions.
A few facts illustrate the overwhelming failure of our
state’s criminal justice system:
• Wisconsin spends more than $1.2 billion per year on
the Department of Corrections. A few years ago, the
state allocated more taxpayer money to its prison budget than to the entire University of Wisconsin system.

Keep People from Entering Prison—In Wisconsin, we know how to keep low-risk people out of
jails and prisons. Almost every county provides alternatives to incarceration, and nearly every program has
proven effective, not only in reducing prison popula• Wisconsin has the nation’s highest rate of incarcer- tion, but also recidivism. A 2012 study showed that by
ation for African American and Native American fully funding the state’s Treatment Alternatives and
males. If you’re a black male in this state, your incar- Diversions (TAD) fund, Wisconsin could keep 3,000
ceration rate is 13 percent, nearly double the national people per year out of the state’s prisons and more
average. More than half of all African American men than 27,000 from ever going to jail. TAD enjoys broad
from Milwaukee County in their 30’s and early 40’s bipartisan support. It is simply a matter of fully fundhave been or are incarcerated. The Native American ing this cost-effective program and ensuring that it
incarceration rate in Wisconsin is 7.6 percent, more is targeted in communities where it will provide the
greatest impact.
than twice the national average.
Wisconsin can further reduce its prison population
Even in politically polarized Wisconsin, there are
by re-examining sentencing practices, as other states
very few who defend the status quo.
have done. Inordinately long prison time does nothFundamental issues of injustice frame and feed the
ing to enhance public safety. It’s extremely costly, and
scandal of mass incarceration in Wisconsin. Racism
it reduces the odds that the offender will be successand systemic discrimination rob too many young
fully re-integrated back into the community when
Wisconsinites of opportunity and hope. Injustice is rereleased. Other common sense steps, from keeping
flected in our school policies, transportation policies,
17-year-olds in the juvenile system to reforming bail
health policies and more. Basic racial and economic
practices, can also help keep people out of prison in
justice issues are intertwined with mass incarceration.
the first place.
We must address them all with urgency.
While we tackle immense issues in the bigger picture,
Justice inside Prison Walls—Wisconsin has
we must also immediately work to reduce our prison
nearly 3,000 people in its prisons who have long been
population. We recommend evidence-based practices
eligible to be released on parole. A broken, out-of-conto cut the rate of incarceration by half. If implemented,
trol parole system has denied them a fair chance to
these practices can save Wisconsin hundreds of milbe freed and get on with their lives. Many of these inlions of dollars each year, funds that can be spent to
mates have been evaluated as being of minimal risk to
heal communities, provide prospects for those swept
society. They have completed every required rehabiliinto mass incarceration for the past 25 years and offer
tative program. The Governor could order an immediopportunities for the next generation. A challenge to
ate fix to this injustice.
Wisconsin’s legislature, Governor, public servants and
Prison was once thought to be a place of rehabilitaprivate citizens, this document outlines achievable
tion. Some practices by the Department of “Correcmeasures that can be implemented in three categories:
tions” actually work against this goal. The out-of-control overuse of solitary confinement as a discipline and
management tool has damaged many people, magnifying mental health issues that often caused behaviors
1 Pawasarat, John and Quinn, Lois M, 2013, Wisconsin’s Mass Incarceration of
leading to incarceration. By turning prisons back into
African-American Males: Workforce Challenges of 2013, University of Wisconsin–
places of rehabilitation, we can greatly increase the
Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute.
2 Human Impact Partners and WISDOM. November 2012. Healthier Lives,
chances that those who leave prison will do so once
Stronger Families, Safer Communities: How Increasing Funding for
and for all, saving taxpayer money. We can also reAlternatives to Prison Will Save Lives and Money in Wisconsin
• Multiple studies reveal little relationship between
crime rates and incarceration rates. The only connection is that excessive incarceration of low-risk
offenders actually increases the likelihood that they
will commit a crime in the future.



duce taxpayer burdens by addressing the staggering
cost projections to meet health needs of Wisconsin’s
aging prison population. Compassionate release must
be closely monitored and used more widely.
Help People Stay out of Prison—The largest
number of people entering Wisconsin prisons are reentering. Nearly 5,000 people return to our prisons every year. About 4,000 of them have not committed a
new crime. They are being “revoked” back to prison
for violation of a rule of supervision or parole. Other
states have found quality, community-based alternatives to revocation, and many have placed strict limits
on the length of time that a person can be incarcerated
for rules violation.
We need innovative programs designed to help newly released people succeed, reducing recidivism. By
devoting minimal resources for common sense programs, we can increase the odds of success for men
and women released back to society. A modest investment in transitional jobs, transitional housing, AODA
and mental health treatment could make a difference.

Wisconsin’s mass incarceration is a result of generations of bad policy. There is no point in assigning
blame; Wisconsin leaders were caught up in a hysteria
that afflicted much of the country in recent decades.
Today, however, there are no more excuses. No one
can claim ignorance about the enormous problem of
mass incarceration. No one can claim lack of knowledge of appropriate and realistic solutions.
None of the solutions spelled out here are experimental or radical. We can achieve all of these results
in 2015. Elected leaders must act now. This is the year
when the people of Wisconsin must stand up and demand an end to tentative, indecisive leadership. We
call on every citizen to demand that in 2015, we will
do what we know how to do in the name of fiscal responsibility, public safety and justice for all.
Long ago, Moses said to his people:
This commandment that I’m giving you right now is
definitely not too difficult for you. It isn’t unreachable.
It isn’t up in heaven somewhere so that you have to ask,
“Who will go up for us to heaven and get it for us that
we can hear it and do it?” Nor is it across the ocean
somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the
ocean for us and get it for us that we can hear it and do
it?” Not at all! The word is very close to you. It’s in your
mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
In the same way, remedies to mass incarceration are
not beyond our reach in Wisconsin. We welcome state
officials and others to add their expertise and abilities
to reform this broken system. We will not tolerate further delay.

Don’t put someone in a box for 23 hours a
day and hope that things will be great when
they’re dropped off in our communities.
— U.S. Sen. Jessie Ulibarri (Colorado)



The Issue
Wisconsin continues to imprison too many people for
low-level offenses. Offenders with minor crimes are not
served by going to prison, especially when those crimes
are caused by mental health and/or addiction. Communities are safer when citizens are rehabilitated and helped
to live healthy, productive lives.
Studies show that treatment and diversion programs
are less costly and more effective in reducing recidivism and lowering crime rates. Wisconsin has reason to
be proud of its Treatment Alternatives and Diversions
(TAD) program. TAD awards state grants to counties for
programs that keep people with addictions and mental
health issues out of jail and prison and in effective treatment programs.
The program has been studied and proven to be effective. The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute released a comprehensive report, Treatment Alternatives and Diversions (TAD) Program: 2014 Participant
Outcomes and Cost-Benefit Report (2007–2013), that gave
TAD high marks. Some key findings from the report for
the first seven years of TAD:

• Independent evaluation and continual learning, ensuring accountability and use of evidence-based practices.
The proven track record of TAD has led other states to
see it as a model, and it has led our own legislature to approve significant growth in the program. Recent increases in TAD funding (from $1 to $4 million per year) represent a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. A
2012 study determined that with $75 million per year, all
potential TAD participants in the state could have access
to alternative programming, which would result in 3,000
fewer prison admissions, and tens of thousands of fewer
jail admissions each year.
Recent increases have gone to start TAD programs
in new counties. This is to be applauded, as now nearly
half of Wisconsin’s counties benefit from TAD, but more
needs to be done. Wisconsin has the highest rate of incarceration for African-Americans of any state in the
country. This shameful statistic could be remedied in
part by targeted expansion of TAD. In Milwaukee, there
are communities of color where nearly half of all working age men have been incarcerated, contributing to an

• 3,093 people participated in TAD programs.
• TAD saved a total of 141,215 jail days and 90,318 prison days. At $35,000 per year per person, the prison
days alone saved taxpayers nearly $9 million. The entire TAD budget for those seven years was approximately $7 million.
• Every dollar spent on TAD saved taxpayers $1.96. The
state saves when prison stays are avoided; counties save
money when jail use is decreased.

Studies show that treatment and diversion
programs are less costly and more effective
in reducing recidivism and lowering crime
rates. Wisconsin has reason to be proud of
its Treatment Alternatives and Diversions
(TAD) program.

• TAD participants have a lower recidivism rate than people who are sent to jail or prison for the same offenses.
The report notes critical factors that have made TAD
successful, including:
• A model that fosters collaboration among state and local agencies.
• Local control: TAD programs are designed by counties.


unemployment rate nearly as high. By designating half
of TAD expansion money for the five counties with the
highest African-American population, Wisconsin could
put a dent in racial disparity.
TAD is a positive Wisconsin innovation. It is a real tool
to deal with over-incarceration and overspending in the

The Inside Story
In November of 2010, Donna

this time in my life. Because

Brown was arrested and

of the program, I regained

charged for her 6th OWI offense.

hope and self esteem. I began

She was facing two years in

to understand that I had

prison. Before sentencing, she

alcoholism and that I never

was referred to a new treatment

needed to pick up a drink

program in her county, the

again,” Brown said.

OWI Court. After intense

After 17 months, she became

meetings and screening, Brown

the first to graduate from the

was the second person to be

OWI Court in her community.

accepted into the program and

Today she can admit her

consequently not sentenced
to prison under the condition

mistakes and added, “I can be

Donna Brown

the happy person that I was

that she successfully complete
“The program was not easy. It was very intense. But

born to be. I am grateful to the
OWI Court. It saved my life and helped me to turn
things around for the better.”

it gave me the structure and discipline I needed at

Department of Corrections. While expanding the program to serve all of Wisconsin, we can also use it to strategically address racial injustice.

Call to Action
As we move toward full implementation of TAD, the Department of Justice, the Governor and the Legislature
need to include at least an additional $20 million per year
in the TAD program in the 2015–17 state budget.
This increase would reduce prison admissions by at
least 1,000 people per year (which, conservatively, could
save the state more than $30 million) and keep several
more thousand people out of county jails.
At least half of the 2015–17 increase needs to be tar11X15 BLUEPRINT FOR ENDING MASS INCARCERATION IN WISCONSIN

geted to the communities with the greatest need, and to
programs that will have the greatest impact on racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

The Issues
All Wisconsinites want a criminal justice system that
helps keep us safe while being accurate, fair and cost effective. However well intentioned, Wisconsin’s four-decade reliance on prosecution and punishment to make
our state safe has been costly and ineffective.


In 1974, Wisconsin’s population was 4,566,000. In 2014
it grew to 5,686,986, an increase of approximately 24
percent.1 In contrast, in the same time frame our prison
population has grown by more than 1,000 percent, from
approximately 2,000 in 1974 to more than 22,000 in November 2014.2
The system is broken and needs to be re-considered
from top to bottom. Instead of creating more and more
crimes and ever-harsher sentences, we need our legislature and administration to have the courage and farsighted wisdom necessary to look at a comprehensive
overhaul. We need a system based on the principles of
restorative justice, with the goal of repairing the harm
done by crime and restoring both the victim and the offender to wholeness. We need a system, like Minnesota’s
1973 Community Corrections Act, that creates an equitable means of allocating the costs of the criminal justice
As Wisconsin moves toward comprehensive sentencing reform, there are some actions that can and should
be taken immediately:
Community Impact Statements. Important policy decisions ought never be made without understanding their
true impact. This is especially true in our criminal justice
system. We have professionals and available data that can
predict the impact that laws and guidelines will have on
various communities, including communities of color,
people with disabilities and low-income people. Community Impact Statements would not favor any particular action— they would simply aid legislators and the
general public in understanding how different actions
would affect different communities. All proposed laws
are subject to a fiscal impact analysis, and many require
environmental impact statements. Our people deserve as
much consideration as our budgets and our wildlife.

treat 17-year-old offenders as adult criminals is a failed
experiment. It has increased the likelihood of recidivism
and provided little public benefit. It is time to follow the
example of most other states and recognize this as a failed
experiment. Indisputable evidence shows that children
are different than adults. Their brains are still developing,
and they have greater capacity for change. Widespread
support exists for returning the vast majority of 17-yearolds to the juvenile system. As former Governor Tommy
Thompson said, “There has been plenty of research over
the past decade to suggest the juvenile court system is
best-positioned to hold first-time, non-violent 17-yearold offenders accountable and reduce recidivism. The
Second Chance Bill is good policy and makes sense.”

Call to Action
The Governor, state agencies and all community stakeholders should work together to create more cost-effective and fair practices that will enhance public safety. As
first steps, these efforts should include:
• A commitment to evidence-based and informed policy through the enactment of community impact statement legislation, similar to laws in place in Iowa, Connecticut, Oregon and Minnesota.
• Return most 17-year-old offenders to the juvenile justice system by passing the Second Chance Act.
• Begin the process for a comprehensive review and revision of the criminal code to put sentencing guidelines
in line with best practices around the country.

Treating Our Children as Children. Our children are
the heart of our families and the future of our communities. From any perspective, the legislative decision to
fri_11_07_2014.pdf; see also



The Issue
Solitary confinement is ineffective, immoral, dangerous
and very expensive.
The United Nations declared that no prisoner should
be held in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days,

and that to do so constitutes torture. Decades of research
have shown that solitary confinement causes serious and
lasting psychological and physiological harm for those
subjected to this inhumane and degrading practice. Nu-

The Inside Story
Tom and Jan Gilbert adopted their son Aaron in

was moved to a facility operated jointly by the

1995 when he was 6 years old. His birth mother’s

DOC and the Department of Health, where he is

drug and alcohol use resulted in fetal alcohol

supposed to receive good psychiatric care. When

disorder for Aaron, who has struggled with cognitive

the Gilberts finally got to see Aaron in August, they

deficits his entire life. Now in

were shocked to find him

his mid-20s, Aaron is serving

delusional, paranoid and sickly

5-year sentence for being

thin, with curly and matted

party to a crime.

hair, speaking in gibberish and
dressed in a padded suicide

Tom and Jan faithfully visit him


every two weeks. Twice during
his sentence, Aaron has been

“He looked and acted like

stripped cold turkey of his

a wild man,” Tom said. “As

medications and consequently

we reflect on his terrible

violated prison rules, resulting

condition, we are baffled by

in repeated stays in solitary

the fact that, when he was

confinement. In March 2014,

losing his grip on reality, the

Aaron landed in solitary again.
When Jan and Tom visited him

DOC kept him in solitary
Aaron Gilbert’s high school graduation photo.

in May, they found his body
marked from admitted selfharm. At a June visit, Aaron refused to leave the cell
that he occupies 23 hours a day, every day.


confinement and cut him off
from contact with us and with
any sense of reality. Aaron has

significant cognitive defects, but when he entered
the state prison system, he was a sane person.

The Gilberts’ attempts to visit and write to their

Inadequate care and torture in solitary confinement

son subsequently in June and July were met with

have pushed him over the psychotic edge.”

refusal by the DOC. They finally learned Aaron



merous studies have also made it clear that prolonged
isolation dramatically increases rates of self-harm and
suicide, fails to reduce prison violence, and increases
Not only is solitary confinement immoral and damaging, it’s also expensive. According to Solitary Watch, one
study estimated that, annually, “the average per-cell cost
of housing an inmate in a solitary confinement prison is
$75,000, as opposed to $25,000 for an inmate in the general population.”
Yet, on a regular basis, Wisconsin still employs this
practice for intervals much longer than 15 days, isolating
prisoners for months, years and even decades.
According to a survey, from December 1, 2011 to
December 1, 2012, Wisconsin placed more than 4,000
men—20 percent of the state’s entire prison population—in solitary confinement, far exceeding the national
average. In December 2012, a DOC official reported that
more than 600 prisoners in solitary had been there between 6 and 12 months; 79 prisoners had been there 2–5
years; and 14 prisoners had spent more than 10 years in
solitary confinement.
But the Department of Corrections claims it has no
idea how often this program, which is antithetical to rehabilitation, is used. A DOC official reported, “Data by
bed placement type (i.e., segregation) and time in that
bed (i.e., number of days in segregation) are not currently captured in our data system for adult institutions.”
While Wisconsin’s prison system remains unaccountable and lags behind, reform is happening elsewhere:
“Spurred by growing budget deficits, costly litigation
arising from unconstitutional treatment, and the public’s
objection to inhumane conditions, several states have
begun to reform their prison systems to limit the use of
long-term solitary confinement.”
Maine, New Mexico and Colorado have made significant reductions in their use of isolation, yielding considerable cost savings without jeopardizing prison safety.

Call to Action
The Governor must demand and oversee the following:
• The U.S. Department of Justice must conduct an immediate investigation of abuses in the segregation unit
in Waupun and all other Wisconsin prisons. All correctional officers must be immediately rotated out of segregation units, if they have worked in segregation longer than three months.


• The Department of Corrections must stop retaliating
against inmates, their families, their advocates or staff
for bringing forward evidence of abuses in solitary confinement. An independent complaint review system
must be implemented immediately.
• The Department of Corrections must restrict the use
of solitary confinement to 15 days or less, and then
only for safety reasons. A clear and defined policy must
be immediately established for transitioning all existing prisoners out of all forms of prolonged solitary
• The Department of Corrections must eliminate the use
of solitary confinement for all mentally ill inmates and
must establish model mental health units in all prisons,
as were mandated by the courts at Taycheedah Correctional Institution.
• The Department of Corrections must stop the use of
solitary confinement for anyone under the age of 18, regardless of whether they are considered to be juveniles
or have been waived into an adult status.
• The Department of Corrections must immediately establish a public database to share the exact number of
prisoners held in solitary confinement every day, their
mental health status, their age and racial-ethnic identity, the length of time that each prisoner has been held
and the projected end of their stay in solitary.
For citations, please see “A Call for Accountability in the Department of
Corrections, Brief Three: Solitary Confinement” at http://prayforjusticeinwi.

The Issue
The Department of Corrections is denying a fair chance
at freedom for more than 2,800 men and women in the
Wisconsin state prison system who are legally eligible for
parole. Incarcerating thousands of people unnecessarily
costs taxpayers millions of dollars.
Wisconsin’s Truth-in-Sentencing law, authored by
Governor Walker when he was in the state Assembly,
went into effect Jan. 1, 2000. People sentenced under
this new law do not have a possibility of parole and must
serve every day of court-imposed sentences. However,
men and women convicted under the old law, prior to

The Inside Story
As a young man, Baron

Baron said, noting his good

Walker was an accessory to an

behavior. Yet each time

armed robbery where no one

he’s been before the parole

was injured. In 1996, a judge

board, he is denied parole

sentenced him to 60 years in

and simply told he has

prison with the possibility of

“insufficient time served.”

parole after 15 years. Now 40

Baron and his wife Beverly

years old, having served 18

have been together since

years in the Wisconsin state

high school. They have

prison system and completed

children and grandchildren.

all required programming

Beverly desperately wants

and more, Baron wants justice

her husband home. She

for himself and his family. He

went door-to-door in their

is an old law prisoner, lost in

neighborhood to collect

an unfair system.
In an interview from the

about 200 signatures of
Baron and Beverly Walker


people who support Baron’s

Fox Lake Correctional Institution, Baron takes
several minutes to share a long list of rehabilitative

“He is not a danger to his community. He’s a

programming he’s taken advantage of during his

different person than he was when he was party to

incarceration, including getting his GED and HSED;

a crime. He clips coupons and sends them home,

getting an associate’s degree in building services

reads to the kids on the phone, makes them charts

with certifications in welding, plumbing, carpentry

for homework,” Beverly said.

and electric wiring; receiving a literacy certification
and tutoring inmates; completing financial
development and financial literacy courses; and
participating in a Restorative Justice program.
“The PRC (Program Review Committee) told me

Baron coined an acronym in his fight for justice:
H.O.P.E.—Honest Opportunity for Parole Eligibility.
He adds, “I regret what I did as a young person,
and I served my time. Now I just want to be able to
support my family.”

that my institutional adjustment was exceptional,”

Dec. 31, 1999, can still be paroled. Currently in Wisconsin, inmates get no meaningful consideration for parole.
Judges under the old law recognized that people could
change in positive ways in prison, and these judges deliberately set sentences with parole in mind. Men and women convicted of crimes under the old law understand that
they have the right to earn parole by serving sufficient
time, participating in programs and showing good be11X15 BLUEPRINT FOR ENDING MASS INCARCERATION IN WISCONSIN

havior. But parole in the state prison system has slowed
to a near halt. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau,
in 2011–12, only 150 paroles were granted, in contrast to
1,651 paroles in 2004.
Old law prisoners cost taxpayers more than $95 million per year, in addition to the wasted money spent on
programing and certifications that expire while inmates
await release that never comes. If 1,000 people legally eli-


gible for parole were released, the state would save more
than $30 million per year. If savings were reinvested in alternatives to prison through TAD and similar programs,
the state could save an additional $60 million per year.
The Parole Commission has authority to grant paroles
independent of the DOC but in practice defers to DOC’s
Program Review Committee (PRC). PRC is charged with
reviewing inmates’ treatment and educational needs and
securing program or treatment space. These two bodies
totally lack effective communication and accountability.
Men and women who have served their time and participated in all necessary programming are bounced between Parole and PRC in a cruel and unjust cycle.
The parole system has broken faith with judges who
imposed old law sentences, with incarcerated men and
women who were promised a second chance, with families waiting for loved ones to come home after serving
their time, and with citizens of Wisconsin who expect
state agencies to be fair and fiscally responsible.

Call to Action
The Governor must direct the Parole Commission and
the Department of Corrections to work together to:
• Immediately review the 421 parole-eligible inmates in
minimum or community custody who have met the
DOC’s standard of safety. Many of these men and women are working in communities every day. At the same
time, however, recognize that parole-eligible inmates
may be housed in maximum or medium security, but
this should not keep them from being fairly considered
for release.
• Conduct a substantive review of every parole-eligible
inmate at least once a year to determine if they can be
safely released. If parole is not granted, the parole board
must state in detail the specific requirements an applicant needs to meet to be released on parole. ‘Insufficient
time served’ is not an adequate response.
• Immediately implement required treatment and training programs so incarcerated men and women can
qualify for parole.
Finally, the Governor must immediately appoint an
Ombudsman, selected by the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with authority to ensure that
people eligible for parole are not lost, lingering and overlooked. Within six months of his or her appointment, the
Ombudsman must report on the number of people le-


gally eligible to go home and progress made in reducing
that number.
For citations, please see “A Call for Accountability in the Department of
Corrections, Brief One: A Broken Parole System” at

The Issue
According to an October 2014 article in The Nation, “All
across the United States, prison populations are graying,
growing old and infirm behind bars.…Today, nearly 16
percent of this country’s 2-plus million prisoners are over
the age of 50, or ‘elderly,’ as defined by the National Institute of Corrections. By 2030, a third of all inmates will
be elderly—and many prisons may look a lot like nursing
A comprehensive study in the Marquette Law Review4
found that not only is the prison population aging at a
rapid pace, but also that the annual cost of housing an
ill and aging prisoner is $70,000 a year, nearly twice as
much as a younger prisoner.
The Marquette study points out, “The burgeoning
population of aging and ill prisoners requires significant medical assistance—a service that the prison system
is required to provide. In Estelle v. Gamble, the United
States Supreme Court…found that the state has a duty
to provide medical care to inmates because it maintains
custody and control over the prisoner…Any bad faith
in treatment in meeting the medical needs of inmates
may be deemed cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States
A 2013 Legislative Fiscal Bureau Report5 reports 3,528
inmates in Wisconsin prisons who are over the age of 55.
Those inmates represent a fiscal time bomb that must be
Truth In Sentencing (enacted in Wisconsin by Governor Walker to reduce the possibility of early release) has
3 “By 2030, American Prisons Will Be Filled With Grandmas and Grandpas,” by
Kate Cox, The Nation, October 27, 2014
4 Nicole M. Murphy, Dying to be Free: An Analysis of Wisconsin’s Restructured
Compassionate Release Statute, 95 Marq. L. Rev. 1679 (2012). Available at:
5 Adult Corrections Program Informational Paper 56, Wisconsin Legislative
Fiscal Bureau, January 2013. Available at


The Inside Story
Gonzalo de la Cruz was diagnosed with terminal
liver cancer in 2010 at age 64 after serving
31 years in prison. A letter from the Carbone
Cancer Center stated that no further treatment
could stop the spread of his cancer.
Three of his sisters were ready to care for him in
their home in Minnesota and began advocating
for his release. Minnesota’s Department of
Community Corrections cleared him to spend
the rest of his life under their supervision. The
Wisconsin Department of Corrections was the
roadblock and did not release him until March
2013. He died in November 2013 at his sister’s
house, having missed out on precious years
of living at home, costing state taxpayers well
over $100,000 for prison time that served no

deprived the Department of Corrections of any control
over the number of people admitted to the system and
how long they stay.
The continuing and dangerous expansion of mass incarceration in Wisconsin will be accelerated beyond
any reasonable taxpayer support because of the everincreasing health needs of an aging prison population.
The Governor, the Secretary of Corrections, the Chair of
the Parole Commission and the legislature must act immediately to address this explosive situation by making
maximum use of parole and expanding compassionate
This can be done safely. Studies have shown that prisoners over 55 who are released from prison have a low
recidivism rate: between 2 and 8 percent.
Many Wisconsin inmates eligible for compassionate
release due to advanced age (the oldest recent inmate to
die in a Wisconsin prison was 102 years old), or serious
illness, are not being released. From August 2011 to October 31, 2013, 23 of 29 petitions received were deemed
eligible. Of those 23 eligible applications, only 8 were released, according to DOC records.

The Secretary of the DOC is expected to recommend
reforms to compassionate release in January 2015. We
will carefully examine these recommendations as we
continue to promote a procedure that protects the needs
of sick and aging inmates.

Call to Action
• The Secretary of the Department of Corrections is constitutionally obligated to provide health care to all the
inmates in Wisconsin prisons and must be allowed discretion to release on extended supervision any inmate
over 55 who is chronically ill and eligible for medical
assistance and any inmate over 65 who is eligible for
• The DOC needs to aggressively look for opportunities
to use compassionate release. Clear guidelines for the
program, both for “old law” and truth-in-sentencing
inmates, must be communicated to all eligible inmates
and their families. The DOC must provide a more
streamlined procedure as well as assistance in applying.
• The following people must be able to initiate the application for compassionate release: the inmate, the inmate’s family member(s), other concerned persons, the
inmate’s attorney, the attending physician or other licensed health care professional, or a DOC employee or
• An independent panel appointed by the Chief Justice of
the Wisconsin Supreme Court should regularly review
all applications for compassionate release to see that the
program is being fairly administered.
• Applications for Medicare and/or Medicaid should be
initiated before release so that there is no breakdown in
availability of access to health care.


The Issue
Revocation of probation and parole currently accounts
for more than 4,000 of the new admissions to Wisconsin’s prisons each year. This number does not include
those who have been convicted of a new crime. Taxpayers need to know that incarcerating men and women for
rules violation costs an estimated $140 million per year.
Breaking rules of supervision can include simple acts
done without explicit prior permission from probation
and parole agents, such as accepting a job offer, unauthorized use of a cell phone or computer, borrowing
money, or stepping over a county line. Former inmates
who wear a GPS (global positioning system) bracelet can
also be re-incarcerated for repeated failures of the GPS
technology, over which they have no control.
A person revoked has no right to a judge or trial to
determine if the revocation is warranted, even if imprisonment may be for years or even a decade. The only recourse is a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
who may allow 30–45 minutes to listen to a case before
most likely adopting the DOC’s recommendation.
Other than verbal warnings, the Department of Corrections rarely uses any other mid-level sanctions, such
as tightened curfew, weekend arrest, community service,
etc. Thus, a former inmate could be sent back to prison for 8 years for a rule violation, at a taxpayer cost of
$35,000 per year. Men and women lose their jobs and are
denied good time for the years they were doing well in
the community. Such use of revocation is unjust, fiscally
irresponsible and a threat to public safety.
A recent report from the Council of State Governments has celebrated declines in recidivism due to sending fewer people to prison on revocations. Other states
have reformed their revocation system with promising
results. Measures in Colorado, Minnesota, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland and South Dakota have provided alternative sanctions to prison time for rule violations and
limited time served. Colorado saved $4.5 million in 2010
with its reforms; Louisiana’s policy reform is expected to
save that state $3.9 million.
Revocations are so commonplace that many people on


People are being revoked for what most
of us take for granted: using a cell phone
or a computer. Or they are being revoked
because of the state’s investment in defective
technology. Revoking 4,000 people per year
for rule violations adds nothing to the safety
of our communities.
— Rev. Jerry Hancock, of WISDOM

extended supervision expect them. Mark Rice, an 11x15
leader, recounted this from his stay at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility: The probation officer of one of my
cellmates recommended the revocation of his probation because he drank alcohol and missed an appointment with
a treatment provider. He faced three years in prison, but
he did not challenge the revocation. When my cellmate
went to court, he told the judge to give him the full three
years in prison. The judge proceeded with the revocation
and sentenced him to three years. My cellmate thought
that he would be better off doing three years in prison than
continuing to be under the supervision of the DOC in the
community. He believed that his probation officer would
eventually revoke him anyway. My cellmate knew that he
would not be given credit for any time served on probation.
He chose to have his probation revoked because he would
then no longer be under the supervision of the DOC after
he got released.

Call to Action
It is past time to reform the Wisconsin Department of
Correction’s excessive and expensive revocation process.
The Governor must order the Wisconsin Department of
Corrections to:
• Count time successfully served on parole or supervision as time served.

The Inside Story
Hector Cubero was 18 when

man asked Hector if he

he committed a crime with

would give him a tattoo.

a group of men. A member

Hector agreed. The young

of the group shot and killed

man was not 18 years old as

a person who was being

he had claimed. His mother

robbed. Hector was charged

disapproved of the tattoo

with being a party to armed

and contacted Hector’s

robbery and party to first-

parole agent. In two days,

degree murder. Too far away

Hector’s parole was revoked,

to see the shooter, Hector

and he has been back in

wouldn’t testify against

prison ever since.

him and was consequently
sentenced to life in prison,

“Before Hector was revoked,
Charlotte’s daughter with Hector


plus 10 years, in 1981.

he was helping rehabilitate
abused dogs, caring for his

Released on parole in 2008 after serving more than

mother and building strong relationships with his

27 years, Hector held a steady job in a restaurant,

new family,” Charlotte said. “Since I’ve been with

cared for his mother, fell in love with Charlotte

Hector, he has been nothing less than a kind and

Mertins and got engaged. In the time he was out, he

warm-hearted person. He’s always the first to lend a

never had a parole violation, never failed a drug test

helping hand.”

and never had a run-in with the law.

There is no indication of when or if Hector might be

Hector had become an accomplished amateur artist

released from prison. The Department of Corrections

during his years in prison, and he went on to draw

will not allow Charlotte or her adult children to visit

and sketch for others as a hobby. In 2012, a young


• Adopt a policy similar to Minnesota where offenders
who violate technical conditions of supervision may
participate in a sanctions conference in lieu of a formal revocation proceeding. No former inmate should
be sent back to prison for a rules violation that does not
involve a new crime.

• Implement an evidence-based set of graduated sanctions designed to help the person succeed.
• Create a system of incentives that rewards parole agents
for the success of the former inmates under their


• Direct millions of dollars saved by reducing revocations
toward finding jobs and housing for formerly incarcerated individuals.
• Release, on bail, a person picked up for a possible revocation during the revocation process. If they are charged
with a crime, the ability to get out on bail should be in
accordance with that crime. If it is strictly a technical
violation, the former inmate should be free while waiting for a decision.
• Require more probation and parole officers to complete in-depth training in how to work with people
with mental illness. Anyone on supervision with a diagnosed mental illness should be assigned only to officers who have completed in-depth training in how to
work with the mentally ill.
For citations, please see “A Call for Accountability in the Department of
Corrections, Brief Two: Failures in Revocation and GPS Monitoring” at

The Issue
Unjust revocation is a particular problem with the DOC’s
GPS monitoring system. Under current law, the Department of Corrections may put anyone on GPS supervision
for a lifetime. It has been shown that this GPS system has
a history of routinely sending out false alerts and failing
to work at all if an individual is in various buildings or
sometimes even if the person is at home.
In a 2013 article, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported that a DOC spokesperson said
the department “has not audited performance of the
(GPS) system” since it began in 2007.
The story also said, “In 2007, a legislative study committee in Arizona measured the effectiveness of using
GPS technology to track offenders. It found that the
140 offenders monitored that year experienced a total of
35,601 false alerts, due to problems such as low batteries
or signals lost in dead zones. The study group found 463
confirmed violations, meaning that false alerts outnumbered proven infractions by a 77–1 margin.”
In regards to Wisconsin’s GPS system, the 2010-budgeted costs at the DOC were $2,737,200. Governor Walker’s proposed budget recommended $10 million in new
funding for GPS tracking in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.


Call to Action
Wisconsin must reform its deeply flawed GPS system
that hinders justice, wastes taxpayer money, undermines
true rehabilitation and does little to uphold public safety.
The Governor must order the Wisconsin Department of
Corrections to:
• Order a complete audit of the operation, effectiveness
and costs of the GPS monitoring system.
• Establish a policy whereby individuals cannot be arrested, jailed or revoked for a mere failure of GPS signal or
false alert until the DOC has proven it operates a highly
effective GPS system.
For citations, please see “A Call for Accountability in the Department of
Corrections, Brief Two: Failures in Revocation and GPS Monitoring” at

The Inside Story
Testimony from Matt Becker, Milwaukee,
August 20, 2014:
I am a person that has made some very poor
choices in my past. I have served my prison time,
and I will soon complete my extended supervision.
I have been placed in the Lifetime GPS program
for sex offenders, and after more than four years
into my extended supervision, I have never found
where in the statue it states that I am supposed to
be on it. During this time I have been incarcerated
13 times due to equipment/system failures. I am
not the same person I was 8+ years ago. I am
someone who has completed treatment, has
been violation free on supervision for more than
a year, and has lowered my supervision level
twice in the last year. I am Matt Becker, a son,
a brother, an uncle, an employee, a taxpayer, a
small business owner and a state organizer with Should I be able to earn my
way off of the Lifetime GPS program?


The Issues and Calls to Action
Most people leave jail or prison filled with hope and a
desire to live productively. As a state, we need to make
modest investments so they can be successful.
Transitional jobs. Transitional jobs are short-term subsidized jobs aimed at getting marginalized people into the
workforce. The program especially aims to get jobs for
the long-term unemployed. Thirty-nine percent of those
participating have been people with a felony conviction.
The largest transitional jobs program in Wisconsin
was the recently completed Department of Children and
Families Transitional Jobs Demonstration Project. It was
highly effective in getting half of the participants across
the state into regular, unsubsidized employment within
six months.
More than 4,000 people participated in the project,
working in more than 800 companies and non-profits.
More than 2,000 people went on to secure unsubsidized
work. Also, the transitional jobs program “Transform
Milwaukee” is operating with just under 1,000 transitional jobs. The next budget should include a $50 million annual statewide program that would give more than 6,000
people annually the opportunity to work in a transitional
Ban the Box. Another obstacle to successful re-entry is
“the box”. WISDOM supports Ban the Box initiatives.
A primary reason people end up back in jail is because
they cannot get jobs. Often, they can’t get jobs because
most applications now have a yes/no check-box regarding convictions.
A “yes” answer usually means instant disqualification.
The applicant is denied even if they are highly qualified
and motivated, even if their crime was years ago or has
nothing to do with the job, even if they have turned their
life around. With no job, people can’t provide for themselves and their families. They end up on public support,
desperately poor and often back in jail. Their children
suffer from instability and poverty; many end up in foster care or jail. All this is a waste of taxpayers’ money and
human lives.
Ban the Box initiatives move the criminal history question from the start to the end of the job application pro11X15 BLUEPRINT FOR ENDING MASS INCARCERATION IN WISCONSIN

cess. When criminal background checks are done later,
qualified applicants can respond and explain. After that
conversation, the employer can decide whether or not to
deny them the job.
The 11x15 Campaign has already worked with public
officials in Milwaukee County, Madison and Appleton
to ban the box for many jobs. It is time for Wisconsin
to follow the lead of places like Minnesota and Hawaii
that have banned the box for all employers, public and
Administered Databases. Wisconsin also needs to follow the lead of Massachusetts and other states that have
reformed their state-administered databases (like Wis-

Most people leave jail or prison filled with
hope and a desire to live productively. As a
state, we need to make modest investments
so they can be successful.

consin’s CCAP). CCAP needs to delete information
about arrests that never resulted in charges, charges that
were dropped and alleged offenses in which the defendant was found not guilty. Misdemeanors should be
dropped from the on-line database after five years, and
all but the most serious felonies should be deleted after
10. People searching the database should be required to
sign in so that those using it inappropriately can’t do so
Lack of Housing. Lack of housing is another barrier to
successful re-entry. The Urban Institute on Housing and
Reentry recently found that:
• The majority of prisoners believe that having a stable
place to live is important to successful re-entry. Those
with no housing arrangements said they need help
finding a place to live after release.
• The majority of returning prisoners live with family
members and/or intimate partners upon release.
• Many former prisoners return home to temporary living arrangements.
• Housing options for returning prisoners who do not


stay with family members or friends are extremely
• Practitioners and researchers agree that there are few
evidence-based re-entry housing programs that target
returning prisoners with mental illness.
Transitional housing resources for those returning
from jail or prison are inadequate in Wisconsin. As the
number of returnees increase, the state needs to create
more options, both temporary and permanent.
Special Services. Finally, as it changes its focus from revocation to rehabilitation, the Department of Corrections needs to concentrate on ensuring that special services are available for those who need them. The DOC
• Mandate that probation and parole officers working
with mentally ill people on supervision or parole be
specially trained for work with that population.
• Ensure that there are adequate community-based slots
available to those returning from jail or prison who
have a history of addiction or mental illness.
• Remove barriers to higher education, technical training
or professional licenses for people with conviction histories, with very few exceptions.

For More Information
David Liners, WISDOM, 414.736.2099,
Rev. Jerry Hancock, First Congregational
UCC, Madison, 608.658.6630,
Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, MICAH in Milwaukee,
Follow our Facebook page at
“Wisdom for Justice”
Follow us on Twitter @wisdom4justice
and #ReformWiscDOCNow
This publication builds on a series of 11x15
Reform Now briefs first published in July,
August and October 2014. WISDOM’s call for
reform will continue until mass incarceration
in Wisconsin is ended. Find the briefs at http://

WISDOM, the Wisconsin affiliate of the Gamaliel
Foundation, is a statewide network, including 12
congregation-based community organizations that work
to live out their values regarding social justice in the
world: MICAH Milwaukee County, RIC Racine County,
CUSH Kenosha County, SOPHIA Waukesha County,
JOSHUA Green Bay area, ESTHER Fox Valley, JONAH Eau
Claire and Chippewa Valley, JOB Beloit and Janesville,
AMOS La Crosse area, NAOMI Wausau and North Central
Wisconsin, MOSES Madison and RUTH Manitowoc County.
Visit WISDOM’s website at