Wisconsin’s prison guard shortage has been getting worse for a decade. It reached a new depth this week.
Since Monday, correctional officers from facilities around the state have begun reporting to central Wisconsin for two-week stints at the Waupun Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Dodge County. Those relocations, of 22 correctional workers being sent to Waupun per two-week pay period, are expected to continue through the end of 2021.
It's the most extreme measure yet taken by the Department of Corrections yet to address its staffing shortages.
While nearly every facility in the state has a shortage of guards, Waupun’s shortage is by far the worst.
According to the DOC, Waupun currently employees 162 full-time correctional officers and sergeants, even though it’s supposed to have 296. That means 134 jobs are vacant, a vacancy rate of 45.3%.
Even measures such as offering a $2,000 sign-on bonus for new guards at Waupun, giving veterans at Waupun extra incentives, closing a cell hall to lower the prison’s population — hasn’t alleviated the problem.
Jail guard job vacancy rates have been growing since Act 10 effectively ended collective bargaining for public employees in 2011. Job vacancy rates at the Department of Correction’s five other maximum security facilities are: 29.8% at Taycheedah, 29.2% at Columbia, 28.3% at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (a supermax facility in Boscobel), 26% at Dodge, and 10.3% at Green Bay.
At the state-run correctional facilities in Racine County — Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center in the Town of Dover, the Racine Correctional Institution in Sturtevant, the Sturtevant Transitional Facility and the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility on North Memorial Drive — the job vacancy rates are 9.9%, 13.1%, 13.6% and 16.8%, respectively.
For the correctional officers being sent to Waupun, housing, food and mileage costs are being paid for by the DOC.
“To be sent from one facility to another like this, that’s weird,” said Dale deBeers, a former correctional worker who spoke with The Journal Times for this report because he said his friends who still work in the prisons are unable to speak out on their own behalf.
“They want to be able to express themselves and they can’t,” deBeers said Wednesday. “It’s frustrating as heck.”
John Beard, DOC director of communications, said in an email: “Let me point out that a decision like this is not taken lightly and DOC is doing this in a way that has minimal impact on other DOC facilities. WCI (Waupun Correctional Institution) has been operating with a high (employee) vacancy rate — over 40% — for some time and staff there need assistance. Staff members across our agency understand this and want to help their correctional brothers and sisters at that facility.
“For example, New Lisbon Correctional Institution has nearly 150 combined correctional officers and sergeants and a vacancy rate of just 7%. Pulling two volunteers to help WCI will have little impact on New Lisbon but, combined with pairs of volunteers from several other institutions, provide a tremendous benefit to Waupun Correctional.”
Being ordered to work a certain shift outside of the norm is colloquially known as a “force” or “being forced,” deBeers said. A “force” is common for when guards have to work weekends or holidays, but deBeers said he’s never heard of a “force” that sent someone halfway across the state for two weeks.
Beard said that no one has been “forced” yet, but that is an option if not enough prison guards at other facilities volunteer to go to Waupun over the next six months.
DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said in a statement: “I believe the safety and security of staff and persons in our care at Waupun Correctional Institution requires us to use all effective means to address high vacancy rates at the institution. I cannot express enough the gratitude I have for all who have volunteered to help our DOC family at Waupun.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Tony Evers deferred comments to the DOC for this story.
The state has slowly begun trying to address the problem.
In May 2019, four months Tony Evers took office, new guards at six Wisconsin prisons (including Waupun) got a 14% increase in starting hourly wage — from $16.65 up to $19.03 — and certain veteran workers got $5/hour pay boosts.
However, according to Beard, “A 2018 survey conducted by the Association of State Correctional Administrators noted that state correctional officers and sergeants in neighboring states made anywhere between 8% and 43% more than their peers in Wisconsin. The Secretary (Kevin Carr) asked for consideration and received approval in the last Compensation Plan for pay increases for security employees.
Last month, a bill was proposed in the Legislature that would revoke a state rule that prohibits advertising for open correctional officer positions on billboards. It has bipartisan co-sponsors, including state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and state Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee. Beard said targeted advertising of open positions could be a way to address the worker shortage.
State Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, whose district includes Waupun, told WLUK-TV in Green Bay last month that he wants to increase pay for prison guards by another $5 per hour.
Low wages may still be costing Wisconsin taxpayers money in the long run. As the Associated Press reported in February: “According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the DOC budgeted about $57.3 million for overtime costs this fiscal year. They are also requesting around $88.3 million annually, which includes salary and fringe benefits, under the next state budget due to an expected increase in overtime costs and compensation.”
That’s up from 2018, when the statewide overtime cost for paying correctional officers was reported to be $42 million. One prison guard alone tripled his expected pay, working 95 hours a week on average for a year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2018; that guard was among 540 state employees who made more than $20,000 in overtime over that same time period.
This parallels how the Legislature and Wisconsin governors have been chronically late to address other known problems in its criminal justice system, like how Wisconsin’s public defenders have been chronically underpaid. That has led to significant shortages of attorneys available to represent poor defendants, causing significant and costly slowdowns in the criminal justice system.
Until 2019, Wisconsin public defenders were paid $40 an hour, the lowest rate in the nation. Merit-based pay increases put in place since have been slow to fix the shortage.
There have been multiple instances in Racine County Circuit Court where dozens or more than 100 phone calls have been made, seeking representation for certain suspects, but no attorneys taking the case.
Critics have also said that lowering Wisconsin’s prison population would also lower the pressure. That could be achieved through reforms that include sentencing fewer people, such as nonviolent lawbreakers, to prison.
According to a 2020 report from the nonprofit, free market-minded Badger Institute: “The Legislative Audit Bureau published an audit of the Division of Adult Institutions’ expenditures in 2019 that calculated the division spends an average of $101.16 per inmate per day, or $36,923.40 per inmate each year. That means that for every 100 new prisoners, the state spends an additional $3.69 million per year.”
Wisconsin’s incarceration rate is actually lower than the national average — with 676 people incarcerated per every 100,000 residents compared to a national average of 698 as of 2018 — according to the Prison Policy Initiative. However, the prison population has increased by 464% since 1983 and by 20% since 2000, according to statistics compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice.
DeBeers, who worked at Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility for 14 years before being terminated for using excessive force in 2014, said that the worker shortage really started after Act 10 was signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker in March 2011.
A number of the most experienced guards quit after their union was decimated by Act 10, deBeers said: “You had a lot of people who retired immediately because they didn’t want to deal with Madison without a union. That became a shortage. Over time, it just got worse. That’s basically what happened: It kept getting worse.”
According to an investigation by WLUK, there were only 88 full-time guard openings across the entire state of Wisconsin in 2010; today, Waupun alone right now has more openings than that. Statewide this week, at 49 state-run correctional facilities, there are 781 vacant correctional officer and sergeant positions — a 787.5% increase in barely more than a decade.
A 2016 report from the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees stated: “Since Act 10, a record number of senior rank-and-file staff in corrections decided to retire rather than work dangerous duty where their voices would not be heard and respected by the administration.”
Among the reasons for increased turnover was guards constantly being forced to work more overtime, which is seen as a morale crusher that in turn increases the rate of people quitting, again exacerbating the problem.
Without strong union protections, it’s also more risky for workers to speak out without fear of retribution or putting their job security at risk. When a Wisconsin corrections officer spoke with Fox 11 News last month, the station distorted his voice “to protect his identity” when the story aired.
Rick Badger, then a Wisconsin AFSCME union leader, said in 2016: “A Wisconsin CO (correctional officer) in 2010 earned a fair wage and fair benefits, had a voice in his workplace and considered it a career to be proud of. There was little turnover, professionalism was respected, and assaults were low. Today, wages are low and benefits are costly … These institution’s populations continue to grow and overcrowding has become the norm.”
Added Beard: “It must also be noted that increasing salary and benefits to attract job seekers at a rate to significantly reduce overall vacancy rates, including at WCI, is ultimately up the legislature.”
According to the DOC, Wisconsin’s state prison system is designed to have a maximum of 16,898 inmates, based on its “design capacity” — defined as “the original design capacity of the institution, based on industry standards, plus modifications and expansions. It excludes beds and multiple bunking that were instituted to accommodate crowding.”
But, as of June 4, Wisconsin’s incarcerated population in prisons is 18,698, or 110.7% of capacity. That doesn’t include the nearly 750 men and women who are technically state prisoners but are living in jails, the Wisconsin Resource Center “for specialized mental health services” and other facilities.
Waupun’s maximum capacity is supposed to be 882 prisoners. But, as of June 4, 930 people were incarcerated there, and more than half of them have at least one diagnosed “mild to serious” mental illness.
At RCI in Sturtevant, the capacity is supposed to be 1,171. But as of June 4, its incarcerated population is 1,545.
“It's not safe for inmates and it's definitely not safe for staff,” Schraa told WLUK regarding the dual crises of prison overpopulation and staffing shortages. “Something bad is going to happen."
RACINE — It’s like a flash mob, but with cash.
Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce, which is dedicated to helping small and large organizations in the county, kicked off its new Cash Mob initiative Thursday afternoon at Dimple’s Fine Imports, 416 Main St.
The premise of #CashMobRacine is to invite community members and RAMAC members to pledge to spend $20 at a small, locally-owned business in a short span of time. Every dollar spent during the Cash Mob events go straight to the business.
Anna Clementi, vice president of operations at RAMAC, said the purpose of the Cash Mob events is to “give a quick, fun boost” and “positive vibes” to local businesses.
In order to participate in the Cash Mob, Clementi said community members just need to show up. Only businesses which are members of RAMAC can be eligible to be “cash mobbed.”
Clementi said RAMAC elected Dimple’s to launch the Cash Mob events because it’s “easy to spend $20 at Dimple’s.”
“We’re glad we got picked,” said Dimple Navratil, who co-owns the store with her husband, Dennis. “We hope that people follow this cash mob.”
Dimple said she is excited to see RAMAC doing this for small businesses and helping them get back on track.
“Small businesses are the backbone of this country,” Dimple said. She noted consumers should have a balance between shopping online at Amazon and shopping in-store and locally.
Clementi said members of RAMAC saw the impact of the Venmo Challenge on local restaurants and wanted to do something similar, but for retail stores.
Though the Cash Mob events began in Downtown Racine, Clementi said RAMAC is planning to host in other businesses in the area.
Melody Gaastra, a customer who was in store during the Cash Mob, said she loved Dimple’s and wanted to come in to support it during the event.
“It’s really important to keep Racine a growing community, and to show businesses they’re supported,” Gaastra said.
A study from Red Egg Marketing showed about 71% of people go out of their way to support local businesses and 82% of them would choose a local product over a national brand. The pandemic has greatly contributed to this surge of shopping small.
Gaastra said she hopes events like RAMAC’s Cash Mob serve as reminders for people to shop local — not just during the holidays or during special events.
“It’s not just a trend,” Gaastra said.
BURLINGTON — A long-awaited task force on race relations in Burlington is meeting behind closed doors and without representation from the Burlington Coalition for Dismantling Racism.
Members of the BCDR have opted out of the task force because, they say, the city chose a consultant to facilitate the discussions with no background on race issues.
City leaders are moving forward with the task force effort regardless, but are withholding the names of the task force members and are conducting business away from public scrutiny.
Mayor Jeannie Hefty said the city decided on closed-door discussions because of sensitive topics being examined and also because the task force includes high school students whose parents were worried about news media coverage.
“Parents of students wanted to make sure their child wouldn’t be subject to media. This was granted,” Hefty said in an email. “Sensitive matter and inclusive conversations that we wanted to ensure the environment (sic).”
City Administrator Carina Walters, who has been involved in putting together the task force, could not be reached for comment.
City officials had been planning the task force for several months in response to reported incidents of racism — particular in Burlington schools — and in response to protests led by the BCDR.
Of an estimated 20 people to be appointed, the BCDR had been expecting to have two of its members involved.
The group decided to walk away from the task force after city officials refused to reconsider hiring Organization Development Consultants as facilitator. The private consulting firm from Brookfield is being paid $10,500 in city funds.
Erin Ramczyk, a member of the anti-racism coalition, said the firm is a “business consultant” that has no experience dealing with race issues in the manner that is needed.
“I just don’t think a facilitator with that background is going to challenge the beliefs of white Burlington,” she said.
Coalition leaders tried to suggest alternatives and urged city officials to reconsider, but to no avail, Ramczyk said.
“We kind of hit a bunch of dead-ends,” she said. “They didn’t want to hear it.”
City officials previously indicated that the task force appointments would be announced and that the appointees would conduct what Walters called “a community conversation.”
Hefty said the task force includes high school students, clergy, school district officials and representatives from businesses.
The group held its first meeting in late May in a location that has not been disclosed.
Hefty did not say why the anti-racism coalition was not involved in choosing a facilitator. But she confirmed that the group declined to be part of the task force after being offered two seats.
Referring to the facilitator hired by the Burlington City Council, the mayor stated in her email: “The consultant does have a diversified staff, which he brought and were involved.”
Hefty said she expects by July to release results of the task force effort.
Burlington has experienced strained race relations over the past year or so, including when a teacher last fall was criticized for discussing the Black Lives Matter criminal justice reform movement with her students.
That was followed by incidents of racial slurs shouted during online classroom sessions, and slurs also being found scrawled on a school playground. Parents and others have come forward to report incidents of racism, including a teacher who allowed students to use racial slurs in the classroom.
Hefty issued a plea for unity last summer, and she began moving toward creating the task force shortly after that.
The City Council in April agreed to spend $10,500 to hire Organization Development Consultants.
Organization Development Consultants has promised to help the city develop a strategy for dealing with the presence of racism in the community.
City officials have asked the consulting firm’s representatives not to publicly discuss their work on the task force.
Aldermen weigh in
Alderman Bob Grandi said he is not part of the task force, but he is looking forward to seeing a report from the group. Grandi said the first task force meeting took place on a Saturday about two weeks ago.
“There were specific members of the community that were invited,” he said.
Alderman Bill Smitz said he received some information from a task force member, but he would not identify the person. Smitz said he approves of keeping the group’s membership and meetings private.
“I’m happy with how they’re doing it,” he said.
Other city council members could not be reached for comment.
BURLINGTON — A Burlington High School teacher suspended after complaints that he pushed extreme political views on his students is claiming victory in a school district investigation of his conduct.
Burlington Area School District officials said Thursday that teacher Jeff Taff did not violate any law or school district policy and that he will be returned to the classroom next fall.
Taff, however, will participate in “professional development” related to concerns raised in the investigation, BASD said in a statement.
“The teacher will meet with district administrators to discuss expectations for curriculum and the discussion of controversial topics,” the district said. “The teacher will be observed consistent with and in addition to the district’s educator effectiveness protocol.”
Although a full report on the investigation has not been released, Taff’s attorney issued a statement that Taff has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
Todd Terry said the school district’s five-month investigation found that his client violated no policy and that complaints against him were unfounded.
“That certainly came as no surprise,” Terry said, “as the complaint was based on a politically motivated cancel culture.”
In an interview, Taff said he looks forward to returning to the classroom and that he will “think twice” about raising certain topics in class, including issues that could offend people of color.
“I’ll definitely keep those perspectives in mind,” he said. “I’m glad to be going back.
“It feels great to be vindicated.”
Laura Bielefeldt, a parent who filed a complaint against Taff, expressed disappointment that school administrators were allowing him back into the classroom.
“Unfortunately, I fully expected the outcome of the investigation,” Bielefeldt said. “Burlington Area School District has a long history of covering up its racism problem.”
Among other things, parents alleged that Taff permitted students to use racial slurs.
Taff, a social studies teacher in his seventh year at Burlington High School, was suspended in January after he participated in the Jan. 6 protest outside the U.S. Capitol opposing Joe Biden’s election as president over incumbent Donald Trump.
Taff messaged his students that he was “standing up for election integrity.” Parents said he also directed students to watch a video spreading unfounded conspiracy theories that Biden’s election was fraudulent.
Taff says although he participated in the pro-Trump demonstration Jan. 6 in Washington, he did not join rioters in storming the Capitol and engaging in violence that contributed to five deaths. He is not among more than 400 rioters who have been criminally charged in the incident.
BASD records later showed that Taff shared with his students unfounded conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. He distributed videos suggesting that the pandemic’s death toll had been inflated and that the public health crisis was manufactured by the Democratic Party.
Other materials he shared with students contained antigovernment and political messages.
Burlington school administrators placed Taff on paid administrative leave on Jan. 7, immediately after receiving a complaint linked to his participation in the U.S. Capitol protest. He continued to collect his $50,000 annual salary while missing virtually the entire spring semester of classes.
The situation divided the Burlington community, with some rallying to Taff’s defense and others calling for his firing.
In his announcement Thursday, Taff’s lawyer said that with Taff being returned to the classroom, the district’s investigation “confirms what we knew to be the truth all along.”
“While Jeff is appreciative of the district’s thorough and professional response to these baseless allegations,” Terry stated, “he will not sit idly by, should this cancel culture continue to spread lies about him.”
Taff said in an interview that he expects to resume teaching history and social studies classes next fall.
Asked Thursday afternoon about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, Taff declined to say whether he accepts that Trump lost the election to Biden. He called that a personal matter.
But asked whether he would continue to share his beliefs about the election with students, he said: “They are critical thinkers. If they are able to figure that out, good for them.”