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Damning report finds reason to replace Green Bay prison — a step Evers says his budget won’t take

A new report confirms what advocates of replacing Green Bay’s maximum-security institution have long been arguing: the prison is overcrowded, out-of-date and dangerous.

It’s a finding that comes just days after Gov. Tony Evers announced he has no plans to use his first biennial budget proposal, scheduled to be released on Thursday, to call for setting aside money needed for a replacement of the Green Bay Correctional Institution.

In a recent report looking at Wisconsin’s correctional institutions, two consulting firms suggest state lawmakers should place a priority on replacing the Green Bay-area prison, which is actually in the village of Allouez. But the recommendations don’t stop there.

The same report, which is dated Dec. 7 but was released just last week, calls for remedying deficiencies found in housing units and health-service centers throughout the prison system. Many of those same flaws were identified 10 years ago in a similar report and haven’t been corrected since.

For Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, the latest study is further confirmation that the century-old Green Bay Correctional Institution has been around much longer than originally intended. The report found that although prison staff employees have done an “admirable job” working in an obsolete building, the to-do list for repairs and improvements is almost insurmountable, touching on everything from tunnels and sewer lines to electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems.

Much of the building is without the sort of automatic-fire-sprinkler system now required by building codes. Its perimeter wall needs repair and its guard towers should be improved or replaced. Inmates at the overcrowded Allouez prison — and other old prisons in the state — are forced to share 50-square-foot cells designed to house only one person at a time. In all, the report found that almost 30 percent of the Green Bay Correctional Institution needs to be replaced, and nearly half of it is in need of major repairs.

“The draft version of the report was incredibly damning for GBCI,” Steffen said. “It made it incredibly clear that it was the highest priority to be condemned and decommissioned.”

“(This) indicates that we have lacked the leadership, courage and dollars to address the poor issues within our correctional facilities,” he added. “We have spent the last decade kicking this expensive can down the road.”

The report comes less than a week after Evers told reporters he wouldn’t add money for a replacement to his forthcoming biennial budget proposal. That announcement seemed to clash with a previous statement in which Evers, although an advocate of reducing the size of the Wisconsin prison population, said the Green Bay institution is “seemingly” in need of replacement.

The latest report on Wisconsin’s prison system, which was mandated in the state’s current budget, was compiled by the Minnesota-based architecture firm BWBR and Middleton-based consulting engineers Mead & Hunt. A partially blacked-out draft version of the report was released last week and a final report is expected in the second half of 2019, said Clare Hendricks, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. The report is meant to assess how well Wisconsin’s prison system is likely to stand up to “current and future operating and occupancy pressures,” she said.

The draft version places the cost of building a new Green Bay-area prison at greater than $100 million more than the previous estimate, putting the total price at between $450 million and $500 million. Steffen said it’s hard to know what accounted for the cost increase, since the draft does not go into details.

In an ultimately unsuccessful attempt last legislative session, Steffen had introduced a bill that pegged the cost of a replacement at about $309 million, a figure attributed to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau. He said he is now asking the Wisconsin Department of Administration to explain how the latest, much higher, estimate was arrived at.

Steffen said he plans to use a budget proposal that Republicans are likely to release as an alternative to Evers’ to introduce an amendment that would have a new prison built, work that, he said, might be best done by a private company. But the more the estimated cost of such a project rises, the harder it will be to get lawmakers to go along.

“The higher the price, the more weak-in-the-knees the elected officials will become,” Steffen said. “It becomes harder to justify the money. There are those who would rather throw money into this unsafe facility than build new if it saves the state money.”

About Nate Beck, [email protected]

Nate Beck is The Daily Reporter's construction staff writer. He can be reached at (414) 225-1814 (office) or 414-388-5635 (mobile).

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