By Gretchen Schuldt
Gov. Tony Evers is proposing to spend $8.1 million to improve heating and ventilation at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), an indication that he won't shut down the facility as its critics demand.
Heat index temperatures can hit more than 90 degrees in much of the 15-story building and 120 degrees in the kitchen, according to state budget documents.
The proposed project, which would be completed in 2023, would improve the situation, according to the Department of Corrections (DOC).
Mark Rice, an ex-MSDF inmate and an organizer of the "Close MSDF" campaign, called for more.
"A true people's budget focused on racial equity, justice, and compassion must include a plan to divest from Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility and other prisons in Wisconsin and redirect resources to the neighborhoods in Milwaukee that have been the most harmed by incarceration," said Rice, now lead national organizer for JustLeadershipUSA, a group working to reducing mass incarceration.
MSDF is a medium-security prison in Downtown Milwaukee that also holds inmates pending investigations into their alleged probation, parole, or extended supervision violations. It has a design capacity of 1,038.
DOC said in its budget request that the facility's population regularly exceeds 1,100 inmates. More than half suffer from serious mental illness and about 75 percent receive daily psychotropic drugs.
"These drugs often create additional health concerns for inmates in high heat index situations," DOC said.
The prison tries to alleviate the misery by providing additional ice each hour, closing recreation rooms, moving susceptible individuals to floors with tempered air when there is space available, and providing accommodations to inmate workers, DOC said in the request.
Just three of of the building's 15 stories have air conditioning, according to the budget request. The exterior windows on the building are sealed shut and there is no outdoor recreation space.
"The kitchen is particularly problematic," DOC said. It was originally designed for reheating meals prepared off site but was converted to a full-scale production kitchen. That saved some money, but the heating and ventilation system was not designed to handle it.
"Heat and humidity is generated in the kitchen from a ventless dishwasher, five ovens, coolers, and a dry storage refrigeration system," DOC said.
Facility staff may be subject to high temperatures regularly, the budget request said.
"During these episodes, some staff need to be frequently displaced or temporarily relocated to provide accommodations and relief, straining staff resources," it said.
The proposed capital project, which would not be completed until 2023, would include modernizing heating and ventilation system controls and upgrading other related systems. Electrical additions and improvements would be included.
Said Rice in an email: "Wisconsin wastes $40 million dollars per year to detain people for conviction-less rule violations in excruciating conditions at MSDF. It's time to #CLOSEmsdf, end the practice of detaining people for conviction-less rule violations, and reinvest resources saved to build safer, stronger, and healthier communities."
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