By Gretchen Schuldt
The number of paroles granted last year was down 82% from a peak just three years earlier, Department of Corrections figures show.
The number plummeted from 201 in 2020 to just 37 in 2023.
“We’re trying to figure that out, too,” said Mark Rice, Transformation Justice Campaign coordinator at WISDOM. The nonprofit has long been active in criminal justice reform efforts.
DOC did not respond to a request for reasons behind the decline.
Inmates eligible for parole are those who were convicted of crimes that occurred before the state's 1999 truth-in sentencing laws took effect. Those laws eliminated parole.
The drop seems part of reduced efforts to lower prison populations, Rice said. Gov. Evers and DOC Secretary Kevin Carr took steps to cut populations during the Covid pandemic but now “it’s back to business as usual,” Rice said.
The number of parole-eligible inmates declines each year as more die or serve out their sentences, but the drop in grants also appears linked to Evers' 2019 hiring and then de facto dismissal in mid-2022 of Parole Commissioner Chair John Tate II. The rise and fall in grant numbers neatly matches the dates of Tate’s employment.
The Republicans ran ads attacking Tate's use of parole to release incarcerated individuals, Rice said. “Some of it was total lies” and there were “a lot of attempts to dehumanize people,” he said.
Tate’s Parole Commission, which granted parole to some serious offenders, brought Evers under heavy political pressure as he sought reelection in 2022. First Evers intervened in May 2022 to successfully request Tate to rescind a decision to parole convicted murderer Douglas Balsewicz, who stabbed his wife to death in front of their children.
Less than a month later, in June, Tate was gone after Evers asked him to resign. He was replaced by former State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who assumed office in January 2023.
Parole grant numbers followed the events: there were 43 grants in the first quarter of 2022, before the Balsewicz controversy blew up; then 31 in the second quarter, as the drama unfolded and Evers requested Tate's resignation. The number of grants dropped after Tate left to 19 in the third quarter and 18 in the fourth, according to DOC figures.
Meanwhile, those who were paroled during Tate's tenure generally are doing well and making positive contributions in their communities, Rice said.
"No human being is irredeemable," he said. Evers ran on pledges to reduce the prison population, but he and Carr have not done what is within their power, including commuting sentences and granting more compassionate releases to seriously ill inmates, he said.
In Wisconsin prisons, Rice said, "The problem isn't understaffing. It's overpopulation."
By Gretchen Schuldt
Advocacy groups on Tuesday called on Gov. Tony Evers to expand the compassionate release program to allow the release of more aged and infirm incarcerated people from state prisons.
"The prison health system cannot handle a massive outbreak of COVID-19. State officials must work to keep our communities safe without putting those serving prison sentences at unnecessary risk," the groups said in a letter to Evers. "You and the DOC (Department of Corrections) must act now to release some of those imprisoned. Lives really are at stake."
The letter was signed by the Wisconsin Justice Initiative; the ACLU of Wisconsin; the Milwaukee Turners Confronting Mass Incarceration Committee; the National Lawyers Guild, Milwaukee Chapter; and WISDOM.
The groups requested Evers to direct DOC to "aggressively" use the program to release qualified, low risk-people from "our overcrowded, understaffed prisons."
"Wider use of compassionate release will reduce prison crowding and help prevent the spread of coronavirus," the groups wrote. "It will reduce stress on prison medical staff and take a long overdue step toward making the compassionate release program an effective and useful tool. The risks posed by coronavirus to too many incarcerated people are greater than the risks these people pose to the public. "
By Gretchen Schuldt
The State Building Commission chaired by Gov. Scott Walker rejected Department of Corrections' recommendations that would help two prisons comply with Prison Rape Elimination Act guidelines, records show.
And the Republican Legislature went along.
DOC requested $9.4 million to replace Adams and Harris Halls at Taycheedah Correctional Institution. Both have numerous problems stemming in part from their age – they were opened in the early 1900s – and are at their population capacity or over.
In addition, according to DOC's budget request, "Adams Hall also has a lack of cameras making it non-compliant with Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) guidelines."
The State Building Commission recommended no money be spent to replace or renovate the building, but called for Walker's Department of Administration to "conduct a comprehensive long range master plan of DOC facilities."
The commission also recommended the state entirely reject a $20 million request for the first phase of a housing unit replacement project at Fox Lake Correction Institution.
Citing a litany of problems with the existing units, DOC said in its budget request, "The layout of the older buildings has been problematic and each building requires two sergeants, where the newer buildings in the DOC system with this security level contain more beds and can be staffed with a single sergeant. Building layouts are not fully compliant with federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) guidelines."
That request, too, was rejected. Again, the commission recommended a long-range facilities study.
The Legislature earmarked $600,000 for the study.
Walker Administration officials, in at least a public relations nod to the prison rape problem, said they disbanded the DOC internal investigative team that uncovered abuses at the state's juvenile prisons so DOC could put more effort into preventing and investigating sexual assaults behind bars. Leaders of the internal team said their jobs were changed because they had done their jobs too well, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Updated Oct. 27 - Department of Corrections spokesman Tristan Cook contends the posted below is misleading because, he said, it misinterprets a statement in the department’s 2017-19 capital budget request.
WJI stands by the post.
The statement was a direct quote from the budget request: "Adams Hall also has a lack of cameras making it non-compliant with Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) guidelines."
Cook said an audit based on a November 2015 site visit found the prison PREA-compliant.
No mention of the audit was included in the Taycheedah budget request.
The department’s budget request was not meant to bring the prison into compliance, "but rather to build on our current compliance by examining ways that we can exceed standards and create an even safer environment for staff and inmates," he wrote.
DOC takes a conservative approach when doing self-assessments of PREA compliance, he said. The disputed quote “reflects DOC’s opinion of its compliance, not the results of the audit, which is the only opinion which affects our statutory compliance,” Cook said in another email. (Emphasis added)
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