Press Release: Gov. Evers, DOC Announce Sweeping Measures to Help Ensure Safety of Staff, People in Care at Correctional Institutions

Office of Governor Tony Evers
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 14, 2023
Gov. Evers, DOC Announce Sweeping Measures to Help Ensure Safety of Staff, People in Care at Correctional Institutions
Measures include building upon ongoing efforts to restore regular movement, reducing use of restrictive housing, and transitioning Waupun Correctional Institution toward single-cell housing 
MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers and Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Kevin Carr today announced sweeping measures designed to help ensure the safety of corrections staff and people in DOC care. Coupled with the Evers Administration’s existing work to address persistent, decade-long corrections staffing challenges, the measures announced today include additional new steps building upon DOC’s ongoing efforts to restore regular movement at correctional institutions; reduce use of restrictive housing; bolster staff emergency response and rounds policies; and transition Waupun Correctional Institution toward single-cell housing. 

The measures announced today come as Gov. Evers visited Waupun Correctional Institution with DOC Secretary Carr on Thurs., Nov. 9, 2023, and spoke with correctional officers, institution staff, and individuals in corrections care. 

“We’ve spent the last five years working to address the decade-long chronic staffing challenges we inherited at our correctional institutions because we want to ensure every person in these institutions is safe, whether they’re DOC employees or folks living in our care,” said Gov. Evers.

“At the same time, we also want everyone in our care to have the support, programming, and rehabilitation they need to be successful, and clearly adequate staffing resources is critical for that important work to continue,” the governor continued. “I appreciated my conversations with correctional staff and people in our care last week and the opportunity to discuss the challenges facing our correctional institutions. We will continue to use every lever and option available to bolster staffing resources and address vacancy rates to ensure the safety of staff and people in our care while resuming critical programming.”

The governor has been regularly briefed regarding the situations and staffing levels at Wisconsin’s correctional institutions and has likewise received regular updates about the DOC secretary’s recent and ongoing visits to and communications with these institutions. The governor will be visiting additional correctional institutions in the coming weeks while working to ensure minimal unnecessary strain on limited staffing resources and disruption to people in DOC care. 

“Ensuring the safety of our correctional staff and the individuals in our care continues to be the Department of Corrections’ top priority,” said DOC Secretary Carr. “I’m optimistic that with the steps we’re taking today and the pay raises the governor secured through the biennial budget that we will be able to continue our work of incrementally increasing safe movement and programming at our institutions with the necessary staffing resources.”

Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Institutions are two of the oldest facilities in Wisconsin’s correctional institution system—Waupun Correctional Institution was built in the 1850s, while Green Bay Correctional Institution was built in the 1890s. A DOC Master Facilities Plan started under the Walker-Kleefisch Administration and completed in fall 2020 noted that “additional significant upgrades will be necessary in the coming years” to keep Waupun Correctional Institution operational. Waupun Correctional Institution has been part of conversations around DOC facility planning for years due to its significant physical site limitations, which make individual upgrades for acute capital needs challenging to complete. Decommissioning the site would require a substantial reduction in Wisconsin’s prison population while separate upgrade projects for acute capital needs are challenging to complete due to its existing building structures and would likely require razing and replacing existing structures. The governor is directing the department to review and consider potential capital planning options to pursue in the absence of a significant reduction in institution vacancy rates and chronic staffing pressure. 

“Coupled with the pay increases we were able to secure through the most recent biennial budget, the efforts we’re announcing today will be a critical step toward addressing decade-long staffing challenges at our correctional institutions, including at Waupun Correctional Institution,” the governor said. “We will be closely monitoring these efforts and evaluating their effectiveness toward relieving staffing pressure, and I will accept the department’s recommendations for capital project options if these efforts are unsuccessful in reducing the vacancy rate and adequately improving staffing numbers given the structural challenges and limitations of our correctional institutions.”

The governor has been working to address the aging facility challenges and chronic staffing shortages inherited from the previous administration, including advocating for dozens of initiatives to reform Wisconsin’s justice system, address long-term staffing challenges, and implement evidence-based practices and alternatives that reduce recidivism and save taxpayer dollars while still improving public safety. 

Addressing corrections staffing challenges
A lack of filled correctional sergeant and correctional officer positions at Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Institutions causes resource challenges to maintain safety within the institutions for members of the public, staff, and population of the facilities under normal operations. For the October 22 through November 4 pay period, for example, the vacancy rate at Waupun Correctional Institution was 54.6 percent for correctional officers and sergeants, while the vacancy rate at Green Bay Correctional Institution was 40.9 percent. 

While Waupun Correctional Institution and Green Bay Correctional Institution have both struggled with security staffing vacancies for a decade, Waupun Correctional Institution vacancies have proven to be more persistent. The administration has attempted numerous initiatives and actions to address staffing levels across correctional institutions statewide, including pay increases, pay bonuses, statewide marketing and outreach, and reassigning staff from institutions with lower vacancy rates. As one part of the Evers Administration’s efforts to address the state’s chronic challenges with correctional staffing shortages, Waupun Correctional Institution has been subject to a supplemental staffing plan since June 6, 2021, to address critical vacancy rates. In the most recent iteration of the plan, effective through Dec. 30, 2023, 22 staff from other institutions are required to provide support. 

The recent pay increases secured through the state budget process have helped DOC begin to remedy staffing shortages across DOC institutions. At the beginning of the Evers Administration, the starting wage for a correctional officer was $16.65 per hour. Due to the persistent actions of the administration, the starting wage is now $33 per hour, with add-ons at certain institutions increasing the starting wage to $41 per hour. Through the most recent biennial budget process, the governor secured funding to expand recruitment and retention efforts. DOC is already seeing the benefits of this unprecedented investment in compensation, and applications for security positions have increased and training class sizes continue to grow. These efforts should begin to relieve staffing pressure across the system and have already had a tangible effect on staffing improvements: the DOC has had more than double the number of applications from July 2023-Oct 2023 compared to March 2023-June 2023. 

Increased staffing support and pay increases to help relieve long-term staffing pressure are enabling additional steps by the Evers Administration to help continue to ensure the safety of staff and people in the care of Wisconsin’s correctional institutions while providing greater access to currently suspended or limited programming. 

Transitioning Waupun Correctional Institution toward single-cell housing
Reducing the population at Waupun Correctional Institution will take the pressure off of security vacancies at the institution and help ensure continued steps toward restoring regular movement. Wisconsin DOC currently has several hundred offline beds across several institutions due to lack of available staffing. Pay raises secured through the most recent biennial budget and increased number of graduates from recent academy classes will help provide the necessary staffing support to enable those institutions to begin bringing beds back online. Doing so will allow individuals currently housed at Waupun Correctional Institution to be transferred and housed in other facilities as beds come back online, thereby enabling Waupun Correctional Institution to move toward single-cell housing.

As part of their work to reduce the population at Waupun Correctional Institution, Gov. Evers is directing DOC to review movements that can occur across the corrections enterprise. Gov. Evers is directing the DOC to transition Waupun Correctional Institution to single-cell occupancy by March 1, 2024, which will require transferring approximately 220 individuals in our care. This will help take the pressure off security vacancies at Waupun Correctional Institution, allowing the facility to continue to move towards safely increasing movement and single-cell housing. 

Restoring regular movement
The Evers Administration today also announced additional new steps building upon DOC’s ongoing efforts to restore regular movement at correctional institutions. Both Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Institutions will continue to evaluate the need for movement modifications, and the DOC continues to work every day to restore regular movement at both institutions. 

Since April 2023, Waupun Correctional Institution has been able to increase operations in a number of areas, including work assignments in food service, health services, laundry, law library, restricted housing unit, sanitation, social services, and housing units. Telephone calls continue to be made available in living quarters. Additionally, “passes”—used by people in DOC care to travel within correctional institutions—for services such as attorney visits/telephone calls, health service, law library, psychiatry appointments, psychology appointments, records office, and video court appearances/telephone calls have consistently averaged over 500 per week. Likewise, religious services are being provided for individuals in our care at Waupun Correctional Institution, and DOC is working expediently towards making video visitation possible, both from an equipment and staffing perspective. Effective today, and with the goal of safely maximizing movement within the facility, the number of administrative rules suspended at Waupun Correctional Institution was reduced, and only rules related to visitation, personal hygiene frequency, and recreation time remain suspended due to ongoing staffing challenges. 

Green Bay Correctional Institution is consistently facilitating movement for the following services: attorney meetings, cell front educational services, chapel services, court calls, digitally formatted legal material reviews, file reviews, GED testing, virtual visits, health services unit, law library, pastoral visits, psychological services, restrictive housing unit programming, and test of adult basic education throughout the week while recreation is currently offered once per week. Effective today, and with the goal of safely maximizing movement within the facility, the number of administrative rules suspended at Green Bay Correctional Institution was reduced, and only rules related to visitation and recreation time remain suspended due to ongoing staffing challenges.

Bolstering emergency response and rounds policies
The DOC continues to reinforce best practices in safety and security procedures and is updating its policies to further those efforts. The department is making policy updates aimed at ensuring swift response to an individual in DOC care who are experiencing distress and further bolstering staff round frequency and quality across all correctional institutions, including setting a minimum frequency of 30 minutes for security rounds in restrictive housing units. Each DOC institution must conduct a thorough review of its procedures to ensure compliance and alignment no later than Dec. 15, 2023, with priority emphasis on restrictive housing. 

Reducing use of restricted housing
The DOC is finalizing updates to its policies to reduce the use of restricted housing while maintaining DOC staff safety. Among the changes announced today include restricting the overall amount of time an individual may spend in restrictive housing, requiring higher approval for restrictive housing unit disciplinary dispositions over 120 days, and further limiting use of restrictive housing for certain rule violations by individuals with a serious mental health diagnosis. The proposed policy changes aim to:
  • Align reasons for placement in restrictive housing to minimize variation across the system;
  • Align the length of stay in restrictive housing to minimize variation across the system;
  • Increase programming across all restrictive housing stays; and
  • Take special actions related to those with serious mental illness assigned to restrictive housing.
An online version of this release is available here.