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It's time to shine a light on the Department of Corrections

posted Dec 18, 2015, 1:48 PM by Sophia Webmaster
By Sandra Milligan, Willie Brisco And Tammy Hayward
Dec. 17, 2015
                        

It was shocking and sad to learn that there apparently has been serious misconduct by Department of Corrections officials at the Lincoln Hills juvenile detention facility. Unfortunately, the news was not entirely surprising. It is the predictable result of a department that refuses to be accountable or to demand accountability of its many employees.

Reports in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel show exactly the kind of pattern that can be expected in a dysfunctional system. Multiple expressions of concern go unheeded. Any investigation of those concerns is done internally or by friendly neighboring agencies and, not surprisingly, report that there is nothing to be worried about. Just weeks before the lid is ripped off of a mess of corruption and mistreatment of vulnerable minors, the top official lauds those in charge, holding them up as great examples. When the truth finally is exposed, the leader is shown to be either willfully ignorant or completely out of touch with what is happening in his own department.

The Lincoln Hills scandal is not the only example of the Department of Corrections under Secretary Ed Wall refusing to be accountable or transparent. Last year, when there was documentation of significant abuse of men in solitary confinement in Waupun, the department refused to even acknowledge the problem. Department officials never allowed for an independent investigation. While they may or may not have temporarily fixed the problem by moving some of the most problematic DOC staff to other jobs, they have not addressed the system that could allow such abuse in the first place.

In November, the ACLU, WISDOM, the Wisconsin Council of Churches and others formally requested a meeting with Wall to talk about the need for an independent evaluation of practices related to solitary confinement, and to recommend policy changes that would minimize future abuse. The secretary has not acknowledged receipt of the letter.

WISDOM and others have expressed great concerns about a major breakdown in the way that parole-eligible prisoners are treated within the DOC. Thousands of men and women who already have served the time envisioned by their sentencing judges are not allowed to access the programs they are told they need to complete in order to be paroled. The DOC has been given scores of examples of such disregard for the intent of the judges. Again, Wall refuses to acknowledge the concern, refuses to meet with anyone outside of his own administration, and claims that he has looked into the situation and has found nothing wrong.

Concerns about the uneven way that people are dealt with on extended supervision also have been ignored. Thousands of people are "revoked" by the DOC back to prison each year even though they have not committed a new crime. The Legislature even passed a law, calling for short-term, community-based sanctions rather than renewed prison sentences for crimeless revocations. More than 18 months after the law's passage, it has not been implemented by DOC officials, nor have they taken steps toward it. Once again, Wall has not agreed to speak with community groups about it.

The easy thing would be to say that Wall needs to resign his position. Surely, his performance does not instill confidence. But it would do no good to change the boss if Gov. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature do not demand a change in culture at the DOC.

The era of secrecy, arrogance and lack of accountability needs to come to an end. Prison walls were not designed to hide the actions of those entrusted with the work of corrections. It is time to invite a thorough, independent, outside evaluation of every aspect of our Corrections system.

Sandra Milligan is the president of WISDOM. The Rev. Willie Brisco and Tammy Hayward are the WISDOM vice presidents. WISDOM is a statewide network of faith-based organizations.

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