Rising prison population will force state to consider options, DOC secretary says

By MICHAEL FLAHERTY | Feb. 23, 2017

Madison — The number of inmates in Wisconsin prisons is growing steadily and will hit a record 24,000 in 2019, possibly forcing the state to build a new prison or seek alternatives such as county jail beds or again sending inmates to other states, Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher told the Assembly Corrections Committee on Tuesday.

“We’re in a slow creep,’’ he told lawmakers, noting that the state’s inmate population had been relatively stable at 22,000 to 23,000 for more than a decade, but since 2014 has been growing by an average of 30 inmates per month. The reasons, he said, are longer prison sentences and the state’s new, tougher drunken driving laws passed in 2015 that call for prison time for people convicted of four or more drunken driving offenses.

As a result, the state’s prisons are very close to their “operational capacity,’’ which will force the state to consider new options, Litscher said.    

Wisconsin’s 36 prison facilities, many of them built in the 1980s, were designed for 16,315 inmates. But when prison populations exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, Wisconsin expanded its prison capacity by converting prison cells from one bed to two and making other modifications to accommodate today’s inmate population, which is just under 23,000.

Even with those modifications, the state’s prisons are so crowded that Wisconsin may soon be forced to “look at building a prison’’ or possibly look at “private options’’ or leasing beds from county jails, Litscher said. Another option is sending inmates to other states as Wisconsin did in the 1990s, when it sent roughly 5,000 inmates to prisons, county jails and private prisons in other states.

“But I don’t want to go there,’’ Litscher said, noting that exporting inmates simply didn’t work as a corrections program.

The cost of housing inmates also is rising, now at $32,306 per inmate per year, or $88.51 per inmate per day, Litscher testified during a committee informational hearing on the status of the state’s corrections system. Part of the reasons for the cost increases is health care due to an aging prison population.  

Last year, taxpayers paid $20.3 million for outpatient services for inmates and $2.3 million in hospital costs, up a total of $1.4 million over 2015.

Also contributing to per-inmate cost increases are wages for prison guards, who make up most of the Department of Corrections’ 10,000-person workforce. Litscher said he immediately raised wages for guards when he took over the agency last year to address a serious personnel shortage.

In Gov. Scott Walker’s new budget, Litscher said, wage increases will be 2 percent each year, funded by $60 million that the governor expects to save by converting the state employee health insurance program to a self-insured system beginning next year. The governor also has said he’ll use those savings to help fund education spending increases.

Michael Flaherty is president of Flaherty & Associates, a public policy strategic communications firm in Madison. He teaches a journalism class at UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences