Visit to Women’s Prison Opens Eyes

“I take full responsibility for what I have done,” the older woman said with remorse. ‘Sally’ was serving a 65-year sentence for possessing drugs with intent to deliver them. She will likely die in prison.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Corrections visited the state’s prison for women – known as Taycheeduh Correctional Institution near Fond du Lac. Nearly all incarcerated women in the state are in this prison.

Senators went to learn. And that we did.

Across the table from us sat murderers, thieves, and drug addicts. But they didn’t look like criminals. They looked like ordinary woman wearing green clothes and no make up.

Everyone had a story to tell.

‘Georgia’ was the victim of repeated domestic violence. One day it became too much. She left four little children behind.

‘Marcia’ was a quiet woman with a deep sadness. She was in for attempted homicide - a 45- year sentence. She came to the prison in November. She was barely 25 and left behind small children and a now ex-husband who wouldn’t let her see the kids. She never had so much as a speeding ticket before one bad day changed her life.

Nearly every inmate comes in with a chronic disease that has been untreated. “We are supposed to see women in seven days when they come here.” The nurse was responsible for intake. “Now it takes us four to six weeks. These women are sick.”

“I worked in a hospital before I came here,” prison nurse ‘Linda’ told us. “I asked people questions about their medical history. In the hospital, we very rarely had anyone answer ‘yes’ to questions about abuse - sexual abuse, domestic violence. Here, 99 percent of new inmates answer ‘yes.’ Most women also have drug or alcohol problems.”

At least a third of inmates are mentally ill. The prison contains a special unit for the mentally ill. Each cell contains a metal bed, a thin mattress, a shelf, and a toilet. Inmates are locked up most of the time. Suicidal inmates sleep on a concrete bed in ‘observation’ units. They wear no clothes but a thick gown about the consistency of a cow mattress.

Programs that work are woefully under-funded. With nearly 800 inmates and high rates of alcohol and drug addiction, the prison has only resources to treat 36 inmates at a time in the 16-week program. Two hundred inmates are on the waiting list.

“A woman became so angry she killed her best friend,” the correctional officer told us. “She came here and wanted to be in the anger management class. She was told she didn’t have an anger management problem. If she doesn’t who does?”

The prison is chronically understaffed. Many correctional officers forced to work overtime with little notice. Short staffing leads to unhappy workers and high turnover. Losing employees costs money and sometimes leads to giving younger, less experienced workers too much responsibility.

The administrative staff is working to make the best of a bad situation. The prison is overcrowded and understaffed. Safety is of primary importance but resources are tight. Space is a constant concern. The warden has tried very hard to not house inmates on the floor, but she is running out of room.

The state budget would have brought sorely needed resources, but the Republican Assembly cut all new positions. The Senate and the Assembly remains gridlocked over far different priorities.

I keep thinking… there must be a way to work smarter. Minnesota has a similar population, size and crime rate but spends much less on prisons and has only a third of the number of inmates in prison. What do they know that we don’t?

Have ideas about fixing our prison system? Let me know. Write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or sen.vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov; call Black River Falls (715) 284-1730; Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free). Visit my website at http://www.legis.state.wi.us/senate/sen31/news/