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Mark Rice is the founder of the #CLOSEmsdf campaign, which seeks to close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility and redirect resources to build communities.
Wisconsin’s disastrous system of mass supervision is at odds with our widely shared values of justice, human dignity and compassion. Detaining people struggling with poverty, housing insecurity, mental health issues and addiction issues for alleged rule violations is at odds with common sense approaches to justice. Yet, public officials in Wisconsin have been keeping its prisons and jails overcrowded for many years by doubling down on this unjust practice.
A new report by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU demonstrates the deep racial injustice and extent of the harm caused by mass supervision in Wisconsin. Wisconsin now detains people for violations of supervision at the third highest rate in the nation.
Seventy percent of prison admissions in Wisconsin now stem from supervision violations. One out of every eight Black men in the state are under supervision, five times the rate for white men. One out of every 11 Indigenous men in the state are under supervision, four times the rate for white men. Black and Indigenous women also are impacted by the supervision system at highly disproportionate rates.
One of the devastating consequences of Wisconsin’s addiction to supervision and detaining people for convictionless rule violations was the creation of the notorious Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, or MSDF, where human rights violations have regularly occurred since its opening in 2001. At least 18 people have died in MSDF over the last 19 years. MSDF was the first prison in the United States built solely for the purpose of incarcerating people under supervision. Nine out of 10 people detained at MSDF have not been convicted of a new crime. Although only 6% of people in Wisconsin identify as Black, 65% of the people being detained at MSDF identify as Black.
Over 50 local, state, national and international organizations have called on Wisconsin officials to depopulate and close MSDF and invest resources saved in Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor communities. Human Rights Watch is the latest organization to call for the closure of MSDF, stating that “running a correctional facility solely for the purpose of incarcerating people for supervision violations risks creating perverse incentives to incarcerate people under supervision.” Policymakers in Wisconsin must no longer ignore this urgent call to action.
In the fall of 2019, a wide variety of stakeholders, including directly impacted people, high-ranking Department of Corrections officials, the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office and numerous leaders of community organizations came together to form the Task Force to Consider the Future of MSDF.
Widespread agreement emerged that the policies and practices that had kept MSDF overcrowded for years must be changed. The task force split into three work groups and eventually recommended that Wisconsin policymakers must:
•reduce incarceration for supervision holds
•reduce incarceration for convictionless revocations; and
•move treatment programs within MSDF to community-based settings.
Unlike the recommendations of many previous task forces in Wisconsin, the Department of Corrections, or DOC, has begun to implement the recommendations of the Task Force to Consider the Future of MSDF. This has resulted in the population at MSDF being nearly cut in half in recent months. The DOC’s own data shows that the population at MSDF had previously been well above its listed design capacity of 1,038 for years. A total of 591 people is currently being detained at MSDF.
This is a promising start, but now Gov. Tony Evers must follow through with his campaign promise to depopulate and close MSDF as soon as possible so that no human being can ever be caged there again. Evers must also follow through with his campaign promise to redirect resources to the communities that have been most harmed by mass supervision.
In addition to closing MSDF, key recommendations from the Human Rights Watch and ACLU report include divesting from incarceration and supervision and investing in jobs, housing and treatment programs; reducing the use of supervision sentences; shortening the lengths of supervision sentences; and strictly limiting incarceration for violations.
In order to ensure that these policy changes become permanent, Republicans and Democrats must work together to pass legislation. However, while some of these changes will require a cooperative legislature, there are many actions Evers can take immediately with or without the state Senate or state Assembly. The governor has very broad powers to commute sentences. The Department of Administration and the Department of Corrections oversee the revocation process in Wisconsin. Both of these agencies report directly to the governor.
A total of 25% of the people in Wisconsin prisons are there because of a revocation without a new conviction. This is not acceptable. If Evers wants to show us that he is truly the “people’s governor,” then he must start by boldly and urgently following through with his campaign promises to close MSDF and cut Wisconsin’s prison population in half.