Idle Hands

Staying busy and well-connected to rehabilitative services is a luxury in Wisconsin’s prison system, not the rule.

Attempting to demonstrate why she should be waived into juvenile court, lawyers for Anissa Weier – one of two 13-year-old girls charged with trying to kill a third friend to impress the imaginary bogeyman “Slender Man” – called a haggard-looking Wisconsin Department of Corrections employee to the stand. This man testifying on May 26 in Waukesha County Circuit Court was Timothy Boehrig, director of social services at Taycheedah Correctional Institution, the state’s only major women’s prison. Under subpoena, he explained that the prison was overcrowded (866 women in a facility designed for 752) and so painfully overtaxed that some women on shorter sentences were being released without any “programming” at all.

What is this “programming”? It’s what state prisons offer other than a tall building and razor wire, and it’s in scarce supply despite the state spending more each year per prisoner (about $30,000 per man, $40,000 per woman) than would be required for room, board, tuition and fees at UW-Madison (less than $25,000). Part of the DOC’s mission statement calls for providing prisoners with “opportunities for positive change and success.” But many are stymied by long waitlists, unable to begin the vocational, counseling or life skills programs recommended for them. As Boehrig put it: “Some of the inmates that we have are going to have a lot of downtime.”

Wisconsin is spending three to four times as much on prison inmates as K-12 students.
At Taycheedah, the waitlist to get into an anger management group runs about 200 women, he said, and the one for the “Cognitive Intervention Program” to improve decision-making runs about 400. Getting a work position, whether in maintenance, janitorial, kitchen or landscaping services, comes with its own delays. In essence, Taycheedah and other Wisconsin facilities have their own unemployment rates. And the waitlists extend to vocational programs in which women learn how to make dentures and perform plumbing, electrical, carpentry and cosmetology work.

Despite this, Wisconsin is spending three to four times as much on prison inmates as K-12 students, who benefit from about $10,000 a year in state aid. The imbalance extends to the UW System, which fell below the DOC as a portion of state spending in 2011. The department’s allotment often goes to enlarging facilities’ capacities, not broadening their rehabilitative services. As Taycheedah expanded its programming spaces to comply with a legal settlement brought by the ACLU of Wisconsin, it also added new beds, and new segregation and intake units, between 2007 and 2012.

Some 73 percent of Taycheedah’s inmates take psychotropic medications, according to the facility’s 2014 annual report, but only 37 percent have been diagnosed “with a serious mental illness … More than 48 percent of inmates are diagnosed with less significant mental health needs,” which include “anxiety disorders, adjustment disorders and less disturbing mood disorders.” The ACLU has fought to expand mental health care at Taycheedah, but other activists point to such widespread medicating as evidence of a dearth in programming. “That’s the easy solution, if you get someone with problems, is to keep them drugged,” says David Liners, state director of the religious group WISDOM, a regional alliance of about 170 churches.

Waitlists for programming can also prolong the prison terms of certain offenders: men and women sentenced under the state’s old parole system (anyone prior to Dec. 31, 1999). These “old law” prisoners – whose sentences can exceed 20 or 30 years – often need to graduate from specific classes or groups if they hope to qualify for parole. To further complicate matters, preference on waitlists tends to go to inmates on shorter sentences, so they get into classes before release. (The DOC didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.)

“We hear from clients who say: ‘The other girls are getting in sooner,’” says Larry Dupuis, legal director for ACLU-Wisconsin. There just isn’t enough space for male or female prisoners, he says, which is troubling because “prisons are largely de facto mental health institutions these days.”

‘Idle Hands’ appears in the August 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
The August 2015 issue is on newsstands August 3.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.