January 29, 2024
From The Real News Network

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Last June, the state of Wisconsin placed two correctional institutions in Green Bay and Waupun on lockdown due to concerns about overcrowding and the quality of facilities. In the ensuing months, several other Wisconsin state prisons have been affected by the lockdown, and Gov. Evers has yet to present a clear plan to end it. Meanwhile, thousands of incarcerated people have been trapped in horrendous conditions. Inmates are spending 23 hours a day in their cells, without access to in-person visitation, regular programming, or even daily showers. Mark Rice, coordinator of the Wisconsin Transformational Justice Campaign at the grassroots network, WISDOM, joins Rattling the Bars to discuss the crisis in Wisconsin prisons and the clear solution Evers has ignored so far: to wield his authority as governor to reduce the state’s prison population.

Studio / Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars, a show that amplifies the voice of people who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and subjugated while offering solutions. I’m your host, Mansa Musa.

Today, we’re going to talk about the current state of Wisconsin prisons, the people incarcerated in them, and we’re going to be talking with our guest, Mark Rice.

Mark spent 26 months incarcerated in the Wisconsin prison system and eight years under the supervision of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. His experience with the state carceral system inspired him to become a leader in the movement to dismantle this unjust system. Today, he serves as the coordinator of the Wisconsin Transformational Justice Campaign at the grassroots network WISDOM. This campaign aims to advance racial justice, decarcerate Wisconsin, and redirect resources away from the prison-industrial complex and into building safer, stronger, and healthier community.

Welcome to Rattling the Bars.

Mark Rice:  Thanks for the invitation.

Mansa Musa:  Let’s unpack this conversation by first briefly telling our audience about what’s currently going on within the prison system.

Mark Rice:  Right now what’s going on in the prison system in the state of Wisconsin is a human rights crisis. At least two prisons in the state have been on lockdown now for nearly a year. It’s having a devastating impact on people who are incarcerated in those two prisons. One is Waupun Correctional Institution, the other is Green Bay Correctional Institution. There have been other prisons as well that have been impacted by lockdowns, but most of the attention has been on Green Bay and Waupun.

We’re talking about people who have been locked in cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes 24 hours a day. Getting meals in their cells. They’ve had programming totally disrupted. The most basic of human needs have been taken away, have been limited or completely taken away.

There have been no in-person visits. They’ve had recreation taken away or extremely limited. There’s been a lack of access to medical care, lack of access to psychological services, to treatment programming, educational programming. Even showers have been limited, so we’re talking about, like I said, the most basic human needs are taken away.

Wisconsin has a problem with overpopulation in the prisons. There’s not a problem with under-staffing, it’s overpopulation.

There’s many ways that Wisconsin can reduce the prison population that policy makers are refusing to move forward. The state legislature has many ways to reduce the prison population. Governor Evers can use his executive authority to bring down the population, he can commute sentences. The Department of Corrections has authority over some of the areas, like they can stop sending people back for technical violations.

There’s some really common sense policy changes that they could move forward to bring down the population. If the population was brought down, then there would be no lockdowns.

One of the primary root causes of the lockdowns is having so many people needlessly being incarcerated for too long. Excessive sentences. In Wisconsin, there’s a huge amount of racial injustice within Wisconsin’s system.

By some measures, Wisconsin detains Black people and Indigenous people at a higher rate than any other state. Some of the neighborhoods in Milwaukee, by some statistical measures, are the most incarcerated neighborhoods ever in the United States. In Milwaukee, there’s a zip code, 53206, which is predominantly Black, that has the highest incarceration rate of any zip code in the United States by some measures. Really, there’s a lot of change that’s really urgently needed in this state, for sure.

Mansa Musa:  Let’s talk about… Let’s go and examine these two institutions in the state of Wisconsin. Are both these institutions maximum security?

Mark Rice:  Yes, they’re both maximum.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. Now, in terms of the reason why they’ve been on lockdown so long is because they’re claiming it’s understaffed. But as you articulated, it’s not understaffed, it’s overpopulated. How long have this been going on, in terms of them utilizing this particular excuse to basically turn these institutions into control units? How long have they been using this excuse?

Mark Rice:  Over eight months now, so almost a year going on. Definitely, long-term lockdowns are torture. Definitely, there’s been suicides. We work with a lot of folks who have loved ones currently incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons.

We’ve launched an entire campaign to challenge what’s going on within the Wisconsin State Prison System. We have a campaign called In the Lockdowns campaign, led by formerly incarcerated people and people who have loved ones who are currently incarcerated and being impacted by the lockdowns. There’s been stories of suicides, it’s led to suicides. Like I said, it’s having a devastating impact on people psychologically. Definitely, the root cause is the overpopulation.

That’s something that WISDOM, I work for an organization called WISDOM in Wisconsin, and one of our goals for a long time has been to cut the state’s prison population in half. We actually have a policy agenda that lays out how Wisconsin can do this.

On the front end, Wisconsin can expand treatment alternatives to incarceration. There’s a program, Treatment Alternatives and Diversions, in Wisconsin, which is really underfunded, under utilized, which can get people out. On the front end, it could divert thousands of people from even going in in the first place.

There’s some in-prison issues. There’s some people who were sentenced under the old law in Wisconsin are still eligible for parole. There’s almost 2,000 people who’ve been incarcerated for over 20 years now. Just got really long, excessive sentences with the expectation that they would be given a fair chance to be released under parole. But then, parole essentially shut down in Wisconsin after Wisconsin went to Truth in Sentencing in the year 2000. That’s another way that people can be given early release through parole.

We also have an earned release program for people who were sentenced under Truth in Sentencing, where they can participate in programming to get time taken off their sentences by participating in that program. That program’s really underfunded, under utilized.

There’s a compassionate release program where people having health problems can be released. That’s underutilized.

On the back end, there’s thousands of people going back for technical violations [crosstalk] —

Mansa Musa:  Right, I know. Answer this here, then. Based on this common sense approach, as you had just outlined, why is there such an apprehension to invest in the ideas, and the policies, and the programs as you just outlined? Two, where are these two particular institutions located? Are they located in an urban part of Wisconsin, or are they located in the rural part of Wisconsin?

Mark Rice:  Waupun is located in rural Wisconsin. Green Bay is in Green Bay, which is a somewhat urban area. It’s located right in the city of Green Bay.

There’s definitely been some momentum around closing them. I think people are starting to realize that these prisons need to be closed because they’re so old. Both of them were built over 100 years ago, and they’re falling apart. It’s going to become extremely expensive to keep them open, to put in the resources needed to renovate those places so that people continue to… It’s not going to be a good investment to even keep these places open. I think that’s part of the conversation that people will start to…

But, there’s also some who want to build new prisons. There’s some of the legislatures, particularly Republicans, who want to close Green Bay down, and they want to do economic projects on that land where it sits, but then they also want to build a new prison.

That’s the fight that we have as well, is we have to stop the construction of a new prison and get people to realize that, by implementing some of these common sense policy changes that I’m talking about, simply, there’s 5,200 people Wisconsin prisons for revocation without a new conviction, sent back for violating the rules [crosstalk] —

Mansa Musa:  Right. Technical, technical violations. Yeah.

Mark Rice:  — Technical violation.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah. Okay, let me ask you this here. Again, why the state of Wisconsin isn’t investing in the common sense approaches that you outlined? For example, I read where the number one thing that they’re utilizing is, because so many people are on parole and probation, they’re utilizing technical violations to get people back in the system. I think they said they only release like 5.28% of people a year.

What is it about the state of Wisconsin’s attitude to be so intransigent about recognizing the need to become more objective? And, it would be more cost-efficient, because right now they’re saying $1.5 billion is being allocated towards the prison system. $1.5 billion could be allocated, you could take that money, allocate it towards schools, education, hospitals, employment, and also investing in some of the things that you talked about.

Why is it that the state of Wisconsin is so adamant about not investing in eliminating and eradicating the overpopulation of the prison system?

Mark Rice:  For one thing, there’s definitely financial incentive. There’s definitely a lot of corporations, a lot of companies making money off the system. As you know, they’re charging people really outrageous prices for phone calls, for food. There’s the financial incentive. A lot of powerful interests want to maintain the status quo, keep that going, to ensure that they’re continuing to make money off the system.

The status quo within the Department of Corrections has been really powerful. There’s many people who are administrators in the Department of Corrections that have been there for years, for decades, and are really resistant to any change to a better approach.

Then, there’s the political as well. There’s still legislators in the state — It’s a very gerrymandered state, it’s one of the most gerrymandered states. There’s been politicians who’ve built their careers off of increasing incarceration rates, on building more prisons. That’s part of it.

I think a central piece of it is the dehumanization of people who’ve been convicted of crimes. I feel like they cannot treat people like this and incarcerate people at the rate that they’re doing without dehumanizing them first. I feel like that’s a central part of the work that we do, is working to change and challenge the narratives that are really dehumanizing people with conviction records. I feel like that’s central.

The more that we can get our stories out — And many of us are out in the community flourishing. Many of us have done years in prison. I’ve been incarcerated myself, many of my colleagues have been incarcerated for a long time. But when we were given a chance to get back out and get in the community, and we’re provided with support services, many of us are now flourishing in the community. The more that we can get those stories out, and to really challenge those narratives, those stereotypes that people have of those who’ve been through the system, then that’s going to change things for the better. I feel like that’s a central part of the work.

Then, we need to change the overall narrative as well. That there’s still that narrative out there which is really powerful, and it’s hard to change, is that many people in the state still believe that building more prisons and filling them up is keeping us safer, and it’s not. We know that.

We actually create safety by investing in jobs, investing in healthcare, housing. We really need to reimagine the entire system and the way resources are allocated in the state, and that starts with cutting back on spending.

For far too long, the state has relied on, really, courts, prisons, police as responses to some of these problems. But instead, it’s really time to start reallocating those resources, putting them especially in the neighborhoods that have been most harmed by incarceration.

Especially Black and Brown neighborhoods, Indigenous communities across Wisconsin, to really start investing in those neighborhoods that have been most impacted by incarceration, most neglected over time, and put those resources then to programs and services we know are going to create public safety.

A lot of these initiatives now are being led by formerly incarcerated people as well. We have a lot of organizations in Wisconsin that are led by people who’ve been through the system [crosstalk] really know how to do this in a way that’s really going to help people flourish in the community.

The more that we can invest in those organizations that are led by directly impacted people, that are providing the services, that are working to change the system, that’s going to really help to start to shift this and change things for the better.

Mansa Musa:  Talk about y’alls strategy going forward, in terms of… We recognize that, based on what you’re saying, that it’s overpopulation. It’s not a lack of staffing. The fact that wanted to bring the National Guard in to oversee the population.

One, address whether or not, if that do in fact take shape, is that going to allow for the two institutions that you talked about to open back up and allow the men to be able to have their basic human rights acknowledged? And two, going forward, what is y’alls strategy in terms of how y’all intend on getting the state of Wisconsin to recognize that it’s more cost-efficient to invest in people’s getting out and staying out, as opposed to chasing people that’s out, running them down, and putting them back in to maintain the count?

Mark Rice:  The first priority for us is that we’re working to get immediate decarceration to happen. We know Governor Evers has the authority to immediately bring down the prison population by using his commutation powers. In an emergency situation like this, there’s definitely a need for them to start using those powers.

The Department of Corrections has the ability to also immediately reduce the prison population. They did that during the beginning of the COVID crisis in Wisconsin prisons. Wiconson secretary, the DOC secretary, Kevin Carr, he brought down the population by 1,200 people with one policy change. He put forward this policy change to release people who were in for technical violations, and that led to one prison that we were working to close down, Waukesha Detention Facility, the population at that prison was cut by more than half during COVID.

But they started to reverse back to normal policies and practices over the last year, and the population started coming back up.

That’s the priority right now, is to get the population down. Then, there would be no need to bring in the National Guard. If they brought down the population, they could actually close down Waupun Correctional Institution, they could close down Green Bay Correctional Institution. By immediately bringing the population down.

Governor Evers, we definitely need him to step up and start using his commutation powers. He ran on a platform, when he first ran for Governor, he promised to work with us to cut the state’s prison population in half. There’s been very little follow through on that.

Now is the time we feel that he really needs to step up and start following through with that promise, and to use his executive authority that he has to do that. The Department of Corrections can cut way down on the number of people who are being sent back for supervision violations, for crimeless revocations, we call it in Wisconsin.

Also, they also have the power to immediately end lockdowns as well. There’s definitely the capacity, even immediately, before those changes are made. They can immediately end the lockdowns without that. Because there’s definitely no logical explanation, no reason —

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, justification there.

Mark Rice:  — To take away people’s basic services and needs, that should never be disrupted. People should always have access to showers, in-person visits, to educational programming, medical care that they need, psychological care. That should never be taken away in any circumstances. The state has the responsibility to care for people who are incarcerated and they’re not doing — A lawsuit, in Waupun right now. They’re facing a lawsuit.

Mansa Musa:  The reality is that Eighth Amendment violations, it’s cruel and unusual punishment. Now, I’m being punished, I got a sentence, I’m doing my time. But now I’m being punished not because of an incident that took place in the institutions — I was locked up 48 years prior to being released. I’ve been in institutions where we’ve been locked down eight, nine months on end.

In most cases, you could trace it back to some type of incident or some type of problem going on in the environment, that they could justify locking us down. Just to say they locked us down because the population’s overcrowded, and you’re claiming that you don’t have enough staff, that in and of itself is cruel and unusual. The explanation shouldn’t even wash.

But talk about, from what you’ve been able to gather, in terms of the people that’s locked in these environments, how are they responding? You mentioned earlier about the suicide rate. But how are they responding overall? And more importantly, how are the families? How is it impacting the families?

Mark Rice:  It’s really having a devastating impact on people who are incarcerated right now. We’ve been hearing that a lot of people are becoming suicidal. A lot of people are having problems with their mental health. A lot of people have not been able to get access to medical care that they need to survive.

One of the leaders who’s been involved with the campaign, her name is Megan Kolb, her father actually committed suicide in Waupun Correctional Institution. He was there during the lockdown right as it was starting, but also got put in solitary confinement on top of that.

They have records now that he was denied several medications that he needed over time. He was diagnosed with serious mental illness, had several health problems. It was denied for months. He was not given access to medication that he needed, and ended up hanging himself while he was in solitary confinement. She’s been involved to really lift up the impact that it’s had on her and her family, how devastating that experience was, and is really working to hold Governor Evers accountable.

Governor Evers actually called 2023 the Year of Mental Health, that he was going to push forward mental health initiatives. Then, there was something like that happens that’s totally in contradiction with that. Mental health, that should extend to not only people who are outside, but also to people who are incarcerated. There’s this language that they use, they call people who are incarcerated “people under their care”, which I feel is not accurate.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, sanitized. Yeah, sanitized.

Mark Rice:  I feel like that’s an oppressive term. It’s an oppressive term that’s pushing forward a narrative of benevolent owners of slave people.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, that’s why I say sanitized.

Mark Rice:  There’s a lack of care too, so definitely, we’re pushing back against that. Definitely, we want humanizing language, to call people people, but the people under our care piece, when they add the under our care, it becomes an oppressive term.

But also, there’s others that are involved right now who still have loved ones who are in there. They’re really worried as well, that some of their loved ones have become suicidal. They’re worried that their loved ones could be next, where there could be another tragedy happening. We’re hearing from people all the time. There’s a sense of urgency, and that’s why we’ve been taking so much action.

We’ve been organizing actions and community forums, almost on a weekly basis in Wisconsin, due to the facts of what we’re hearing from people who are personally impacted.

Then, we also have many people who’ve been incarcerated in these places themselves, so they know exactly what’s going on. We’re stepping up to several organizations, like EXPO, Ex-incarcerated People Organizing in Wisconsin, whose been really stepping up. Many of their staff people and leaders have been incarcerated in Green Bay and Waupun.

One of our organizers from Madison, he actually was contemplating suicide while he was locked up in Waupun Correctional Institution. I feel like we really have people who understand and empathize due to their personal experience of being incarcerated in those places.

It’s really important for the work to be led by those who are most impacted, and also the strategies to be developed by those who’ve been most impacted. I feel like that’s what we’re really doing in pushing this out.

Mansa Musa:  Let me ask you this here. As we close out, what can our audience, anyone that want to get involved with this fight in Milwaukee, to get some justice and some relief for the men that’s locked up in these plantations, how can they get involved? In terms of helping y’all get the word out, but more importantly, change the conditions that the men are now being subjected to?

Mark Rice:  Definitely. They can check out our website, wisdomwisconsin.org. Definitely, you can sign up. There’s information about the Transformational Justice Campaign at WISDOM, definitely sign up and get on the email list to get more information.

We’re on social media as well, on Facebook, on X, on several other platforms. I’m on several platforms myself under ricermark, R-I-C-E-R-M-A-R-K. You can find me on X, on Facebook, on LinkedIn. Definitely reach out, connect with me on those platforms.

We have community forums coming up, there’s going to be one in Madison, Wisconsin on Feb. 1, 6:00 PM. I can get you more information about that. We had a forum recently, in Milwaukee.

Our format, we’re really focusing on engaging directly with elected officials now. We’re inviting representatives to come to these forums. We’re giving people a chance to share testimonies, three-minute long testimonies, about anything related to the lockdown. A lot of people who have been directly impacted are showing up, sharing these testimonies.

The one in Milwaukee, I talked to one person afterwards. He said, after hearing all these testimonies, there’s no way anyone could support continuing these lockdowns, because they heard about the suicides, the devastating impact it’s had on people and families. I feel like it’s very important to hear from those who are being impacted and their loved ones. These community forums are providing a platform for that to happen.

But also, we’re taking it to people who have the power to make the changes. We’re taking it to Department of Corrections administrators, to the Governor’s office, to state legislators. We’re going to be having some meetings with the Governor’s policy advisors with the Department of Corrections coming up and definitely need people, as many people as possible, we need them to reach out and contact Governor Evers, contact the Department of Corrections, contact their state legislators throughout the state, and let them know what’s going on right now is a human rights crisis that needs to be ended immediately.

We really need to demand that, to say what’s going on right now is not acceptable. We really need to start demanding that they implement these common sense policy changes to reduce the prison population and put resources back into communities that have been most harmed by incarcerations so we can really start to build safer, stronger, and healthier communities by making smarter investments with public resources.

Definitely, direct engagement with elected officials, but also organize. Definitely, people can get involved. We have several different task forces, ways to get involved. We have a structure with this campaign that, definitely, anyone that wants to get involved and show leadership, which is based in Wisconsin or even nationally, but definitely it would be helpful for people to get involved nationally. Put pressure on from outside Wisconsin too, to let them know that people across the country are looking at this and saying, this is really a stain on the reputation of Wisconsin, nationally. I think to have that national spotlight put on it is going to be really powerful as well.

Mansa Musa:  All right, Mark. Thank you. There you have it. The Real News, just like the name say. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. That’s going to do it for us today. But you can find us here every Monday as we continue to rattle the bars for truth and justice.

I want to thank our guest, Mark Rice, for joining me as we rattled the bars today. We ask that you continue to support The Real News and Rattling the Bars, which you can do by clicking the donate button next to this video. Or, by going to therealnews.com/donate. Because guess what? we really are the news.

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