Prison Overcrowding Looms as Issue in Wisconsin Governor Race

prison overcrowding

By Christopher Zoukis

As Wisconsin governor Scott Walker seeks re-election this fall, the state’s large inmate population is shaping up as a campaign issue. In the crowded Democratic primary to select that party’s candidate for governor, numerous entrants assailed the size of the state’s prison population, and some pledged that if elected, they would reduce prison overcrowding by as much as one-half through various steps.

The incumbent governor Walker assailed the cut-in-half goal as “dangerous,” saying any quick move to halve the state’s prison population would mean releasing inmates who have committed violent crimes. State attorney general Brad Schimel, like Walker a Republican, also attacked the proposal on the same grounds.

The winner of the Democratic primary, state schools superintendent Tony Evers, argues his state should take a lesson from other jurisdictions, like Texas, which have stopped revoking parole for rule violations that fall short of new crimes and have expanded alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts. Texas has already completed closing half of the eight prisons it plans to shutter.

Evers also said he would consider other steps to reduce prison overcrowding, among them greater drug treatments for inmates, lowering the age for juvenile offender status to 17, and revamping the state’s truth-in-sentencing law so that inmates could receive more time off for good behavior. Overcrowded prisons have also overtaxed rehabilitation programs, to the point, the Wisconsin system’s backlog for alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs exceeds 5,000 inmates.

Expected to highlight education issues during his campaign, Evers compared the states outlays for its correctional system with state spending for its system of state colleges. Whichever party controlled state government, for the last two decades Wisconsin’s inmate population has risen rapidly, due mainly to “get tough” sentencing and corrections policies adopted in the 1990’s.

With inmate population climbing from about 7,000 in 2000 to about 23,700 today, and a state corrections system designed to accommodate only 16,000, Wisconsin has had to construct and open about one new prison a year, which pushed state spending on corrections ahead of its spending on higher education.

Without adjusting for inflation, Wisconsin’s corrections spending since 2000 has climbed by about 620%. Last year, the legislature created a new task force to study the Department of Corrections’ capital budget needs.

Like many of the other Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls, Evers also opposes sending inmates to privately-run prisons, (the state has contracted with both county jails and private prisons for space to house some of its excess inmates) and wants to close the state’s high-security prison in Milwaukee as soon as that can be done.

Both the county jail or private prison space the state has contracted out for, and the new state prison construction add millions to the annual corrections budget. Critics also argue the contract facilities are less likely to offer inmates rehabilitation programs; they concede that many state prisons are in dire need of repair, but they call for reducing the inmate population rather than building yet more prisons to accommodate larger numbers.

According to a mid-August poll from Marquette University Law School, Walker and Evers are running neck-and-neck, each holding the support of 46% percent of likely voters in November.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at and