Dave Considine: Legislature must act to ensure prison safety

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

Wisconsin’s correctional officers (COs) put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities. Along with teachers, nurses, cooks, and many other staff in our institutions, officers work hard to help rehabilitate people who have been convicted of a wide variety of crimes. These are our friends, neighbors, and family members. They are doing challenging jobs in an extremely stressful environment. Our institutions are overcrowded. Many inmates struggle with undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses that our underfunded mental health programs cannot handle – yet at the same time we want to build a new prison. Our justice system puts them there, yet the officers responsible for their care are still underpaid and severely overworked, and we have done almost nothing at the state level to fix it. In Governor Walker’s budget that recently passed into law, we provided some support to the Department of Corrections (DOC), but it’s simply not enough.

This environment is not new in our correctional industry, but it is more severe and dangerous now than it has been in Wisconsin before. Why? Because six years ago, Governor Walker’s Act 10 legislation undeniably exasperated these challenges to the detriment of our DOC employees. They are no longer able to collectively bargain, they aren’t paid fairly, and they are forced to work multiple overtime shifts in a row. I have listened to officers in my district for more than two years who have felt driven to the point of exhaustion and burnout because of these issues. Not only is this unfair, it is dangerous.

Since I was elected to the Assembly, I have worked with Senator Jon Erpenbach on this issue. I have reached out to correctional officers and staff who work at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage. I have listened to them and their families tell me how difficult their jobs have gotten and how they fear retaliation from their superiors for speaking up. I have met with DOC officials to try and find solutions outside of writing legislation. Still, I have not seen the state take the kind of action I feel our employees need and deserve.

That is why I have worked on this issue with Senator Jon Erpenbach since I was first elected to the Assembly in 2015. In addition to talking with correctional officers and staff as well as DOC officials, we have reintroduced a package of corrections safety and security reform bills to try and address these problems. Our bills would not solve the issue entirely, but they would take badly needed steps to ensure adequate staffing inside our correctional facilities, allow employees to collectively bargain for workplace safety, require fair pay across officers and sergeants, and require basic safety precautions for our institutions that do not currently exist in state law. We also introduced these bills last session and our colleagues in the majority did not even give them a public hearing. I am hopeful that this session will be different, but we will keep trying regardless.

We know our correctional officers and staff have incredibly hard jobs. We may not know exactly what it’s like to be in their position, but we know they continue to go to work every day even with no guarantee that they will be safe. No one should have to endure daily uncertainty, fear, or physical danger at their workplace. We can all agree on that, and I hope to see the state take action on this legislation to support our correctional employees.

— Considine, D-Baraboo, represents the 81st Assembly District.

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