Tony Evers and Mandela Barnes held a virtual town hall to discuss the 2021-23 budget in regards to prison and policing on December 8th. He and members of his administration lied to participants and muted people who objected to those lies, undermining their branding of the event as a “people’s budget listening session”. More than 250 people were on the call. These participants were put into seven or more break out rooms to facilitate the collection of public comments.
We had people in almost every break-out room and heard zero public comments in support of funding the DOC. Representatives of reformist organizations like WISDOM politely requested funding for treatment alternatives and diversion, which takes potential captives (and thus funds) away from the DOC. Advocates urged the Governor to pursue drastic population reductions, especially as the body count of his captives dying of COVID continues to rise. Family members pleaded for expansions of early release and sentence commutations to literally save the lives of their loved ones. Mental health advocates asked for improved treatment for people held in DOC facilities and county jails as well as people attacked by police, but they requested that the funding go through the Department of Health Services (DHS), not the DOC.
We fully anticipate Governor Evers will ignore the people and instead fund a prison expansion. During his closing comments he all but threatened to do so. You can see video of his statement on WisconsinEye. (You may need to create a free account and login to view the archive.)
Let’s break his statement down and get into the details. Tony said:
I need- we need, lets put it in the terms of ‘we’- we need a lot of people to be as active as they were tonight going into this next budget.
The fact that he started with “I need” then corrected himself is revealing. After hours of hearing people plead with him to stop torturing and killing people in his prisons, he turned around and told us to help him. The fucking nerve! For Governor Evers, as always, the priority is his needs, not the needs of the people of Wisconsin, especially not the needs of people targeted by Wisconsin’s criminal punishment system. Tony continued:
because we are at- we are at a crossroads in our state, and if we’re not successful, and many of the changes that people are advocating for we need legislation to make that happen, I know there’s some that are… I get that, and we’re working hard to work through those issues administratively, but the big issues have to be addressed legislatively
This is completely untrue and you can tell by how he says it. When he says “I know there’s some that are…” and then trails off, he is refusing to admit aloud that he has power to effect this situation. He comes right up against it, then backs out. It has been his strategy since January 2019 to deny his own power and put responsibility for the prison catastrophe unto the legislature. His calling a special session following the Kenosha uprising, while also calling in the national guard to suppress the protests is another, very blatant example of this strategy in play.
When he says “we’re working hard to work through those issues administratively” he is again abdicating responsibility and putting fault for inaction on his administration, but that means his employees. If it takes years to make people who work for you do something, then you are either a very ineffective boss, or you don’t actually care very much about that thing getting done. Either way, the failing still falls squarely on Tony Evers’ shoulders.
The undeniable fact that he has issued zero pardons to imprisoned people exposes that he is not even trying to make change. Governor Evers chose criteria that excludes everyone who is in prison. He will not let his pardon advisory board–a board he created and wrote the guidelines for–even consider clemency, sentence commutation, or pardon for anyone who is less than 5 years past the end of their sentence, including their time on extended supervision. When the criteria first came out, his apologists suggested that over time he would expand it to include people on paper and eventually imprisoned people. Nearly two years into his 4 year term and amid a deadly pandemic, he has not at all. No one in the legislature, the DOC, or anywhere has the power to prevent the governor from taking that action, he just won’t do it.
we have a lot of legislators on this conference call tonight and I know that they are staunch advocates for what we are all talking about. We are-we’re going to face a extraordinarily important issue in this next budget either we find a way to, to have more- uh robust criminal justice reform or we will- versus, building a new prison.
This is the threat. If we do not help him, then he’s going to chose a new prison. He conceals that threat, abdicates responsibility for it, and rhetorically positions himself as opposed to that outcome, while failing to take action to prevent it.
We cannot do that, folks, we cannot do that. If we, uh, end up solving this problem by making it worse, uh that would be a tragedy for the state of Wisconsin, so not only do we need you all here tonight talking about it and expressing your concern and your anger and your good will, but we need you- this has to be a bipartisan solution, there’s no question about it there are no elections between now and when this budget is introduced.
The budget process in Wisconsin is: Governor Evers proposes a budget to the legislature. The Joint Finance Committee (members of the State Assembly and State Senate, majority Republicans) take that budget and either amend it, or write their own. They invite public comment, then they pass that budget into law. After that, the Governor can go through and veto parts of the budget. He has line-item veto power on budget.
If the legislature puts a new prison in the budget, Evers can simply take it out. They put a new prison in the last budget and he vetoed it. There is absolutely no reason this could not happen again, unless Evers chose to let the Republicans’ prison remain in the budget. He does not need our help. He does not need bipartisan support. He has all the power he needs to prevent the tragedy he’s bemoaning, he just needs the will to exercise it.
We need your help. There are- there are states all across this country where we have- where they have made significant progress on criminal justice reform and they are republican states. there is nothing holding us back but- but frankly the ability for us as a state to come together in a bipartisan way to solve this problem and i can tell you as someone who knows the ins and outs of the budget process, this is the time- uh, we need you, we need your help on this- this issue.
Again, he does not need our help, but he clearly wants our help. He wants this to be bipartisan. He wants us to put enough pressure on the legislature that they agree to doing what he wants. In other words, he wants to leverage our motivated opposition to prison expansion to increase his power relative to the legislature. He is functionally saying he will not protect our loved ones unless it also breaks up the partisan gridlock that has plagued his administration. To him, his career and brand as an effective, Joe Biden-esque, bi-partisan negotiator is more important than the lives of our friends he holds captive, and he is threatening us with prison expansion to make us try and solve the problem for him.
You live all across the state, not everybody on this, on this call is from the urban areas of the state that are primarily represented by democrats. A lot of you are represented by republicans and we- we can do this, I- as-as somebody mentioned earlier tonight we uh- we had a bipartisan group with Representative Goyke- I know he’s on here someplace and others that we are going to make some minor, but important progress in a bipartisan way.
Not exactly sure what he’s referring to here, but it might be the law Goyke wrote and managed to pass that should have closed Lincoln Hills in response to the child abuse scandals that rocked the facility. That was a bad bill. It would replace Lincoln Hills with new facilities, increasing the state’s capacity to imprison and torture children. To learn more and get involved in protecting children from abuse by prison guards, check out Youth Justice MKE. More importantly, Lincoln Hills didn’t close, and Governor Evers says its not likely to close by the deadline in the bill, because there isn’t enough funding for the construction of new youth prisons. The part of the Lincoln Hills closure bill that advocates opposed is also the part that is going to prevent the closure of the facility. Horrific.
Building new prisons for children is an absurd and disgusting solution to the problem of children being abused by prison guards. If the Governor and the legislature insist on Wisconsin’s children being imprisoned, there are plenty of existing buildings “closer to home” in Milwaukee and Madison where those children could be held. If the Governor made good on his campaign promise to reduce the prison population, he could empty out minimum security adult facilities that are “closer to home” like the Felmers Chaney facility on Milwaukee’s northside. The defunding of public education has also left multiple schools empty in the city, which could be converted to residential centers to imprison children, if that’s what the government insists on doing. Obviously, that would be a tragedy in itself, but not as bad as building more prisons for children, likely at the future cost of more schools.
…and actually Tommy Thompson was part of that conversation, the former governor. We could not get it done, the leadership of the other side shut it down. We cannot we cannot have this anymore. We- we- I need your help as Governor and uh, the people that are, uh, struggling in the- in the system need your help too, and I heard your message tonight and we’ll continue to fight for them, but the bottom line is: we need help.
The Governor should not be allowed to say “we’ll continue to fight for” people who he is actively killing by exposing them to COVID19. He has not fought for people in prison. He didn’t even include prisoners or their guards in his COVID vaccination plan unlike most other states. He is not an ally to the people he holds captive or their families and for him to try and position himself that way is an affront to decency.
The- the- the legislators that you see around you, if you have a view of the different people- they’re all there. We need some help on the other side and we need it ASAP.
The legislature is gerrymandered. A majority of people in Wisconsin oppose prison expansion. Likely 100% of the people on the call who he was speaking to oppose prison expansion. Many of those people attended the Joint Finance Committee public comment sessions last budget cycle. We made those lawmakers listen to hours worth of two-minutes-long public comments about cutting the prison system, and they ignored us and put a prison in the budget. They are going to do so again, regardless of anything we do.
How does Evers expect us to influence the staunchly minority-rule legislature? There are people all across the state with incarcerated family members or who otherwise desire decarceration, but they do not and will never make up a majority in the gerrymandered districts they live in. Representative David Steffen in Green Bay wants a new prison for his voters. If GBCI gets torn down because it’s unlivable and incredibly expensive to maintain, Steffen expects to have a replacement employer for his prison-guard constituents. Advocates have sat in his office and talked to him about it. He feels entitled to this pork barrel project, and his friends in the Republican leadership tried to give it to him last budget cycle. There is nothing we can do to prevent them from trying again. There is something Governor Evers can do: veto it.
The budget I will be releasing in early February will have major issues that will help solve this problem, but the- the alternative is- uh, building a- a new $600 million prison. That’s unacceptable. So we need your help. The time is now folks.
The time to do what, Governor Evers? You are the one who can prevent that unacceptable thing from happening, but you are somehow trying to make the people-people who just spent all of this listening session pleading with you to reduce the DOC-feel responsible for your impending failure to do so. That’s some weird rhetorical shenanigans, Tony.
So, thanks so much for being a part of tonight, I hated to end this on such a, a- draconian and kind of serious note here, but this is all serious stuff and if we don’t make some progress on this budget we will be in a much much worse place. So thank you very much.
There was no need to end with draconian threats. Governor Evers could have instead assured people he would use his line item veto power to prevent the gerrymandered legislature from putting a new prison in the budget. Simple. He could have assured people he would bring down the prison population and actually solve crowding in the system by issuing a mass sentence commutation and changing policies and practices in his DOC.
The fact that he didn’t give these assurances, and hasn’t taken these actions indicates that he will not solve prison crowding by reducing the population. Instead, he made ominous and unnecessary statements warning us of a new prison, which suggests that he doesn’t intend to veto the prison that will surely be in the legislature’s budget. He is trying to soften that blow. Why else would he talk about it this way?