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Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison
Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison (Photo credit: Teemu008, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Taxpayers should know about Wisconsin's truth in sentencing laws and how they are ineffective at reducing crime, causing overcrowding in the prison population, staff shortages and an unsafe environment.

Truth in sentencing, often referred to as TIS, refers to a set of laws that require offenders to serve a substantial portion of their sentence before they can be considered for parole or early release. In Wisconsin, the TIS law was implemented in 1999 with the aim of reducing crime and increasing public safety. However, there is evidence to suggest that TIS has instead created more problems.

One of the main arguments against the approach is that it has led to an increase in the prison population, which increases costs. Since implementation of TIS, the state’s prison population has risen from around 19,000 in 1999 to over 21,000 as of June 2023. This growth has come at a significant cost to taxpayers, with the state spending over $1 billion in the last fiscal year alone. 

Moreover, TIS has a disproportionate impact on certain communities, particularly communities of color. According to a 2021 report by The Sentencing Project, Black residents in Wisconsin are incarcerated at a rate more than nine times higher than white residents. Despite making up only 6% of the state’s population, Black individuals make up 42% of the state’s prison population.

The effects of overcrowding

The overcrowding has led to worsening conditions for inmates as well as staff shortages, increased violence and reduced access to health care and education.

One corrections officer I spoke with said they work long hours because of the staff shortages.

“We are forced to work 16-hour work days because our staff are leaving to take jobs where they won't get jammed, and make the same amount of pay for lesser time of work,” they said. “The new people who come out of the academy won't last because they don't have a life anymore once they enter the (department of corrections). It’s like we’re doing time alongside the inmates. Sixteen hours out of the 24-hour day, do you know what that does to my household? I barely get to see my kids, I barely get to see my wife.”

As an inmate, I also see staff stressed, and this leads to them being disrespectful and petty. These overcrowded institutions are like a powder keg waiting to blow.

The combination of too many prisoners with too few staff results in inmates being let out of their cells far less. This causes stress among the inmates, who start arguing with each other over trivial issues. Those issues cause fights once the doors are unlocked. Just a few months ago, inmates argued over the phone, and when the doors unlocked, a man stabbed two other guys, one of whom died. This was done purely out of frustration and isolation.

Mental health suffers

The rate of inmates being diagnosed with some form of mental illness is rising yearly. At Stanley Correctional Institution, where I am housed, some inmates are suicidal because of the isolation, staff shortage and lack of programming.

On my unit, I know there are at least 60 out of 100 people on some form of medication for mental illness. Psychological services only sees inmates who fit a certain mental health code once a month, and for some, it takes six months to receive a check-in.

Being locked in a cell and treated badly by overworked staff has caused inmates to request to see psychological services even more. Most recently, psychological staff at my facility cut their workload and started working only part time. Some have chosen to leave corrections altogether.

A few of my friends reached out to psychology services about feeling suicidal and they were placed under observation, stripped naked and given a smock. This is depressing and discouraging because they are being humiliated for feeling unwell. This in turn makes many not want to reach out for help and instead suffer in silence.

Overdoses on the rise

Wisconsin also has a major problem with inmates overdosing on K2 synthetic marijuana and other drugs. I recently spoke with an inmate who got high and I asked why he would do that.

The response: “Because there's nothing else to do, we’re locked in, being treated bad. I signed up for education and they told me I was on the waiting list. That was a year ago. So I said fuck it and got my head bad. Time is still ticking (but) at least I'm not here for a while.”

The system breeds a nonchalant culture among staff, including at the medical clinic. I saw a guy with diabetes die from an insulin overdose. I've heard a brother plead for help for hours on the tier, only to die from a blood clot in his brain.

If we are feeling unwell, we are told to drink more water, and if it does not get better, write them another slip. I was in a cell last winter in freezing cold. Temperatures had been below zero outside for weeks on end. When I told the medical staff that I was chilled to the bone, they told me to take a hot shower. This was impossible since we had no heat or hot water on the unit. I felt hopeless.

Truth in sentencing laws are not stopping crime. Locking up people, who are predominantly Black, and warehousing them with little to no rehabilitation is not setting a precedent for a safer society. The economic toll on the taxpayers and the emotional and mental toll on inmates and overworked corrections staff can easily be alleviated by the elimination of these laws.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Fontaine Baker is a writer incarcerated in Wisconsin.