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Corrections Officers Warn Riot Conditions Exist

By: Zac Schultz
By: Zac Schultz

A number of Wisconsin prison Correctional Officers testified before an Assembly Committee last week, and their message was bleak.

"We could be facing a serious disturbance in 6 months or less," says Sgt. Paul Oosterhouse of the Dodge Correctional Institute.

They say the Governor, the Legislature, and the Secretary of Corrections have overlooked the problems and ignored their concerns.

The biggest complaint is overcrowding. The group says Wisconsin's prisons are at 134% of capacity. "This is only getting worse since the Governor brought all the people back–all of our out of state inmates back," testified Officer Brian Cunningham of the Waupun Correctional Institute.

Secretary of Corrections Matt Frank admits there is overcrowding, but he says the solution is expanded drug and alcohol programs and more sentencing options. "We do not believe that the solution to dealing with prison issues in the state is to build more prisons."

The corrections officers say another problem is that 23% of all inmates have a mental illness.

Secretary Frank has a lower number. "I would say about 8–10% of the inmates have serious mental illness."

No matter the numbers, both sides agree on one thing. "Correctional officers are not trained sufficiently in how to meet these inmates specialized needs," says Cunningham.

"We do the best we can to treat and deal with inmates, but there is inherent difficulty of having someone with a mental illness actually in a prison setting. That is an ongoing challenge that is not easily solved," says Frank.

Officers say those conditions were present and contributed to prison riots in other states. "Over and over again you can see the same things popping up and the same things as contributing factors to the same things that led to the riots in those states," says Cunningham.

Secretary Frank says Wisconsin is not in that position. "The nature of the business is it's inherently potentially dangerous. We have dangerous people that are sent to prison."

"The conditions are building. The ingredients are there. If we're not careful then the right spark is lit we could be in some serious trouble," says Oosterhouse.

"I would not agree with that," says Frank.

"We are running on borrowed time. When something happens it is going to be severe," says Officer Justin Givens of the Stanley Correctional Institute.

Officers say in the last year at least 3 Wisconsin institutions have been locked down for a month at a time due to prisoner unrest.

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