Stalled state action exacerbates Green Bay, Wis. prison crisis
Insufficient state funding and a deteriorating 125-year-old facility compound safety challenges for both inmates and staff
By Lucas Robinson
The Wisconsin State Journal
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Efforts by state leaders to fund repairs to the 125-year-old Green Bay Correctional Institution or replace it remain stalled. A dated 2019 estimate found replacing the prison would cost up to $500 million.
Meanwhile, the prison remains outdated and deteriorated. Ten guards and a nurse have been investigated by authorities in the last five years for allegations ranging from bringing drugs into the prison to neglecting an inmate who later died. Assaults prompted a prison lockdown in June, which means the roughly 970 inmates have been largely confined to their cells for nearly four months.
Conditions have left the more than 350 staff members at the prison unable to deliver the standards and safety expected of a modern prison, according to interviews with about two dozen current and former inmates and guards, their family members, current and former government officials and activists.
“These men are being forced to live in foul conditions that are not compatible with communal living, period,” said Jerome Dillard, the executive director of EXPO, a nonprofit that organizes former jail and prison inmates. “They get one shower a week. What are we doing? We’re making people worse.”
When the Department of Corrections had consultants look into the prison’s aging infrastructure in 2020, they determined it should be prioritized for replacement over the Waupun Correctional Institution, an older facility that has gotten better funding for improvements. A bicycle factory converted into a boys reformatory in the 1890s then a maximum security prison in the 1970s, the Green Bay prison’s antiquated layout makes it difficult to move inmates throughout the facility and for guards to monitor the prison’s two main, four-tier housing units.
“The newer prisons are built with better sight lines, better security, better everything,” said Ed Wall, who served as Wisconsin’s Secretary of Corrections from 2012 to 2016. “With Green Bay, you’re basically dumping money into it every year to keep it runnable.”
The 2020 DOC report found that no other maximum security facility for men in Wisconsin had more infrastructure and systems either failing or close to failing than Green Bay. The prison’s small and dated housing and health care services received the lowest ranking possible under the report’s scoring system.
Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr declined two requests by the Wisconsin State Journal this summer to discuss conditions at Green Bay, and the department did not respond to a series of written questions.
State Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, said Wisconsin’s time and money needs to be put toward closing the prison and moving inmates into a modern facility with proper housing, medical treatment and programming space.
“There’s going to have to be a decision,” Steffen said. “Are we going to make the decision to close GBCI when a catastrophic event occurs? Or are we going to do it in a time frame that is under our control?”
Antonio Whatley couldn’t walk.
The 37-year-old Green Bay inmate was sick, and asked guards to get him a wheelchair so he could go to the prison’s health unit.
But Whatley didn’t have a documented wheelchair need so he wasn’t going to get one, two guards told him on May 11, 2021. A corrections officer told Whatley “he doesn’t need a wheelchair and that he has been walking every day,” according to a Brown County Sheriff’s documents.
Guards considered Whatley’s unwillingness to walk a refusal of medical treatment.
Staff visited the cell seven times over more than seven hours to hand out food or mail, but got no response. During Brown County’s investigation, guards said protocol requires that a supervisor be notified when an inmate is unresponsive, which did not happen when Whatley stopped responding to guards.
Just after 7 a.m. on May 13, guards found Whatley dead on the floor of his cell. His cause of death and other health information was redacted in the records provided to the State Journal.
A Brown County investigator referred charges of inmate abuse to prosecutors against the officer and a nurse who was there when they denied Whatley a wheelchair. Neither returned calls from investigators or faced charges.
Whatley’s case was one in a series of investigations of guards at the Green Bay prison on recent years.
In February 2022, a sergeant at the prison did not follow protocol when she did not check on an inmate with a history of suicide attempts who had announced he was going to kill himself, another investigation found. A little over an hour later after being left alone, inmate Andre Nash was found hanging from a bedsheet in his cell. He survived.
When a Brown County detective questioned the sergeant about her response to Nash’s suicide attempt, she said she did not remember being told about the inmate’s threats to hurt himself. In an interview with investigators, She blamed it on being busy with a different suicide attempt and complained about the facility having “no consistency, communications and documentation.”
“The DOC academy is six weeks in length. It was a joke,” the sergeant told investigators, according to records. “I am concerned that there are not going to be any changes here, so I am looking for employment somewhere else. There is very low staff morale and I want more out of life than that.”
Charges of inmate abuse were referred against the sergeant. The same charge was referred against a guard who breached protocol when he left Nash alone right after the prisoner threatened to kill himself. Neither was charged.
A lieutenant at the prison faced allegations of excessive force because she used pepper spray on Nash before guards cut him down during the suicide attempt. Brown County Detective Roman Aronstein asked the county District Attorney’s Office to review the case. The detective also concluded that using pepper spray on inmates during suicide attempts happens at the Green Bay prison on a “routine basis” and that it might violate use of force standards.
Other guards at the prison have faced prosecution for bringing contraband, including marijuana, into the facility.
In December 2021, guard Justin Maher was caught delivering drugs and cell phones into the prison for two inmates, according to a criminal complaint. Investigators recovered about $19,000 to $35,000 worth of marijuana and cell phones on inmates, who said Maher had brought it in along with harder drugs like cocaine and ecstasy.
Maher had told his inmate accomplices that he needed money immediately because he was in debt to an organized crime outfit, the complaint said.
Beyond Maher, two other female guards were caught in 2019 bringing marijuana, erotic photos and other contraband to prisoners with whom they were romantically involved. When questioned by investigators, guard Rachelle Ritchie said, “bringing contraband into GBCI was super easy” and claimed that guards often smuggle cell phones to inmates.
Ritchie pleaded no contest to a felony charge of bringing contraband to an inmate. Another guard, Sharon Pierce, pleaded no contest to a felony charge of bringing contraband to inmates and a misdemeanor charge of attempting to do so. Both received probation. The criminal case against Maher, who faces felony charges for drug trafficking, bringing contraband to inmates and abusing official authority, remains ongoing.
The Brown County District Attorney’s Office did not return requests for comment for this story.
In interviews, two former guards at the prison said staff are unprepared and undertrained to handle what it takes to run the aging facility.
“What I saw toward the end of my career, though, it was a lot more mental illness, and I didn’t think a lot of us staff at that time were honestly prepared for how to treat that or deal with it,” said Joe Verdegan, a guard from 1993 to 2020.
Jeff Hoffman, a Green Bay prison guard for 22 years who retired this year, said training for correctional officers grew less rigorous as the prison system struggled to fill jobs.
“You have staff with little experience teaching brand new people how to be experienced,” Hoffman said.
Bad behavior by inmates, including physical attacks on staff, has grown more flagrant over the years, the two guards said.
Many of those assaults have been investigated by Brown County authorities, too. Since 2019, county detectives responded to prisoners pelting guards with urine and feces, a guard getting hit over the head with a radio, guards getting sucker punched and more.
The Department of Corrections has said attacks on staff and between inmates prompted the current lockdown at the prison, which started on June 16. That day, two inmates had arson charges referred to prosecutors for setting fire to bedsheets and other materials in their cell, said David Poteat, a captain with the Brown County Sheriff’s Office
Activists have claimed that staffing levels at the prison led the DOC to put it under a lockdown. Green Bay has a staff vacancy rate of 46%, the lowest of Wisconsin’s five maximum security prisons for men.
Jennifer Clemmensen has heard about the prison’s failing infrastructure from her son Tony Sheppard, who is incarcerated there for armed robbery and kidnapping. The ceiling in Sheppard’s cell appears to be caving in and there are cracks in the floor and Sheppard has told Clemmensen that there are rodents.
“There’s nothing I can do as a parent out here in the free world,” Clemmensen said. “They’re criminals. They’re there to be rehabilitated, that’s the original intent of the criminal justice system, but they’re not because they can’t get out of their boxes.”
In letters to the State Journal, Sheppard said inmates are limited to one shower a week while their release for recreation and programming has been eliminated entirely.
“We are treated like wild animals so most start acting like one,” he wrote. “It is no less than a hostile environment created by design. I’m surrounded by careless individuals who have nothing to lose, which triggers them to lash out when treated how we are now being treated.”
Any solution for the prison situation lies with state politicians.
In 2019, Republicans in the state Legislature passed a budget provision that would have spent $5 million to find a location for a new prison in Wisconsin so that the Green Bay facility could be closed. Gov. Tony Evers vetoed the money, saying the state needs to pass comprehensive criminal justice reform first instead of building more prisons.
Since then, Republicans have blocked some of Evers and the DOC’s attempts to fix the aging infrastructure at Green Bay.
The prison is located in the Village of Allouez and, in response to the initial online publication of this State Journal report Friday morning, Village President Jim Rafter said in a statement, “Today’s disturbing revelations by the Wisconsin State Journal are damning and further proof that Green Bay Correctional Institution needs to be closed. The facility is a danger to the guards, inmates, and the community where it is located. State leaders must step up and take action before it is too late.”
“Despite the well-documented dysfunction at Green Bay Correctional Institution, our state government has no long-term plan for this 125-year-old facility,” Rafter said. “We are ready and eager to work with Gov. Evers and the Legislature so they can come together on a solution that benefits the facility residents, staff, and the community in which the prison resides.”
In a May letter to state legislators, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr warned that not updating things like the prison’s health care services or roof puts the state at risk of getting sued over conditions at GBCI.
“Even if this administration and the Legislature were to engage in a meaningful dialogue about a new facility to replace one or more of our aging facilities, the final construction of a new facility would be five to seven years down the road and roofing repairs are routine maintenance,” Carr said.
Funding for the roof passed in this year’s budget talks, though whether it will be spent faces other approvals. Funding for a new health unit did not get passed.
Beyond building a new prison, activists argue that Wisconsin could reduce its prison population to a point where inmates could be housed in existing facilities.
During his first campaign in 2018, Evers vowed to cut the state’s prison population in half. That has not happened, in part due to the state’s strict sentencing laws, decisions by the Parole Commission and rising crime. When Evers took office, the state’s prison population stood at about 23,000. Today it’s at about 21,700.
“The reality is that our current population and existing capacity are not conducive to closing any facility at this time,” Carr said in his May letter to state legislators.
Wall, who led the Department of Corrections during the Walker administration, said he had proposed building a corrections campus near a major population center, such as Madison, that could absorb the closure of Green Bay and Waupun’s prisons. That never got any interest from the Walker administration, Wall said.
A leading advocate in the state Legislature for closing Green Bay’s prison and building a new one, Rep. Steffen said calls for criminal justice reform demanded by Evers should not be linked to a “brick and mortar, space and safety issue.”
“We have to stop looking beyond the next election and be thoughtful on behalf of the generations of men who are incarcerated there,” Steffen said. “What type of facility do you want to provide them? What type of facility do you want for the staff working there?”
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