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The problem of prison lockdowns in Wisconsin

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Throughout the country, prison lockdowns have increased, often due to shortages of correctional guards. That has been an acute problem this year in Wisconsin. The state's governor recently announced prison reforms, but critics say it is not enough to remedy inhumane conditions. Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM reports.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: There are 37 state correctional facilities in Wisconsin. For several months, a few thousand male inmates have rarely been able to leave their cell or have visitors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Stop the torture and the lockdown. Close Green Bay.

QUIRMBACH: Demonstrators rallied recently protesting one of Wisconsin's oldest prisons, the 125-year-old Green Bay Correctional Institution. The 1,000 men housed there are on lockdown. Twofeathers Seacrist spent four years inside the prison and was released last year. He says lockdowns are difficult.

TWOFEATHERS SEACRIST: Showers once every week if you were lucky, you know? But usually it was every two to three weeks. It was rough. Medication lines were pretty much nonexistent. They wouldn't let you out of the cells for nothing.

QUIRMBACH: Cicely Atterberry's former partner's an inmate at Green Bay. She says phone calls are limited and visits banned, which means their daughter can't stay in touch with her father.

CICELY ATTERBERRY: It affects my daughter's behavior, the way that she looks at things. And with the conditions that her father is in, it's just hard. It's dim. It's gray. Like, it's sad.

QUIRMBACH: There are even worse problems at Wisconsin's Waupun prison, say advocates for inmates. There have been three inmate deaths, at least one ruled a suicide, all while the prison was locked down. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers recently announced a plan to lift some of the restrictions and earlier told reporters he was fully aware of the controversy surrounding locking prisons down.

TONY EVERS: That's a huge issue. We have to be thoughtful about people that die in our care. But at the end of the day, we do need to make sure that we have enough staff, and that's what's making the lockdown.

QUIRMBACH: In recent weeks, the vacancy rate for correctional officers and sergeants at the two prisons ranged between 41 and 55%. Those types of vacancies and extended lockdowns have also played out in Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas and Oklahoma prisons over the last two years, according to the ACLU. Wisconsin's governor hopes recent pay increases that bring the beginning salary for correctional officers to $33 an hour will help fill vacancies. He's also directing the state corrections department to allow prisoners more time out of their cell. But for now, visitation and recreation remain suspended. Jessica Sandoval, national director of the prisoner advocacy group the Unlock the Box Campaign, says the Wisconsin plan lacks specifics. She says instead of trying to hire more prison staff, states should be looking at feasible ways of reducing the inmate population.

JESSICA SANDOVAL: So whether that's through clemency or through certain sentence reductions. That could also be people who have, you know, certain health conditions based on age. Those kinds of considerations would be certainly one way to reduce the numbers of people incarcerated.

QUIRMBACH: Sandoval and other advocates believe that could greatly reduce any need for prison lockdowns. For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENDRICK LAMAR SONG, "SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August, 2018, as Innovation Reporter, covering developments in science, health and business.