Green Bay Correctional Institution’s high complaint numbers have advocates pushing for closure
An analysis of Wisconsin Department of Correction data shows the maximum-security prison came in second for complaints filed during fiscal year 2020
Despite having the eighth-highest incarcerated population throughout Wisconsin Department of Correction facilities, Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI) had the second-highest number of complaints filed by incarcerated individuals from July 2019 to June 2020.
An analysis of publicly-available 2020 annual reports showed incarcerated individuals at GBCI filed 4,639 complaints during the facility’s 2020 fiscal year. GBCI averaged a daily population of 1,059 individuals during the timeframe. GBCI was in second place behind Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI), which had 6,271 filed complaints for its roughly 1,200-person population.
As of the end of May, men ages 19 to 39 made up 67 percent of the incarcerated individuals at GBCI. Black men make up the majority of the population at 61 percent. Nearly half of GBCI’s population were convicted in Milwaukee County.
People incarcerated at GBCI issued complaints about problems with lost or damaged property, not receiving proper medical care, conflicts with staff, and internal inmate disputes. Property complaints accounted for the highest number of filed complaints, 17 percent, at GBCI during fiscal year 2020. Complaints against prison staff were the second highest at just under 15 percent.
John Beard, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, said incarcerated individuals fill out paper forms and place the forms in a lockbox for security and confidentiality. The prison's Institution Complaint Examiner (ICE) reviews and inputs them into the Inmate Complaint Review System (ICRS). From there, complaints can be rejected or approved for review by a reviewing authority, such as wardens, bureau directors, or administrators. Then the authority decides if an incarcerated individual’s complaint is affirmed, and what actionable steps, such as reimbursement for lost or damaged property, will occur.
Only 8 percent of all GBCI complaints filed in fiscal year 2020 were not rejected or dismissed.
The Wisconsin Administrative Code DOC § 310.10 outlines a plethora of reasons complaints can be rejected, including issues that the DOC considers lacking in merit or frivolous, complaints issued 14 days after the initial occurrence, an issue is considered moot, or complaints unrelated to policies, rules, living conditions, or employee actions that personally affect the inmate or institution environment.
GBCI reimbursed prisoners for 44 lost or damaged property complaints in fiscal year 2020, totaling $1,764.19.
When asked why GBCI might have such a high rate of complaints, Beard said he would “politely decline to speculate on inmate complaints.”
Poor conditions, increased complaints
Ramiah Whiteside understands the large number of complaints inside the 29-acre maximum-security institution first-hand.
“It doesn't surprise me that Green Bay has a few more complaints than average. That's about par for the course because Green Bay has more issues,” Whiteside said.
Whiteside spent just under two years incarcerated at GBCI. In 1995, Whiteside was sentenced to 47 years after he crashed into a Milwaukee bus stop and killed four people during a high-speed police chase. He was released on parole in 2019. Since his release, Whiteside now works as a relational organizer with Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), an initiative of WISDOM, a Milwaukee nonprofit working to end mass incarceration in Wisconsin.
Whiteside said he saw a lot of complaints revolving around facility conditions during his time at GBCI, among other issues.
A 2020 DOC report outlined numerous problems with Green Bay’s 124-year old grounds and other facilities. The report showed that the health services available at GBCI and Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution (PDCI) were inadequate for their populations. The same report also found that both GBCI and WCI have converted some of their single-occupancy cells into double-occupancy cells and by doing so, the cells are no longer compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, DOC requirements, and American Correctional Association (ACA) standards.
In the summer months, hot days and an outdated HVAC system can lead to an increase in complaints. Later in the year, Wisconsin winters take their toils and also cause increased complaints.
“It's extremely hot in the cell, because it's just the buildings being so old. The circulation system is just horrible,” said Whiteside.
During his experience being shuffled around prisons in the region, including Oshkosh Correctional Institution and Fox Lake Correctional Institution, Whiteside learned that GBCI does excel in having complaints be taken under consideration rather than rejected outright. In his experience, other facilities reject a lot of complaints. Whiteside said this difference is largely in part because of the veteran inmates inside of GBCI.
“Some of the old heads there, or elders there, don't mind helping some of the younger guys file the complaints,” said Whiteside.
While at GBCI, Whiteside filed a complaint related to a lack of sanitary and cleaning equipment inside of a cell he shared with an HIV-positive inmate. Inside of the close quarters, Whiteside’s cellmate had health conditions that caused blood to be left on a shared sink. His complaints were rejected and eventually, Whiteside filed an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, claiming the lack of protection and proper protective equipment violated his Eighth Amendment rights, which forbid “cruel and unusual punishments.”
“It doesn't surprise me that Green Bay has a few more complaints than average. That's about par for the course because Green Bay has more issues." — Ramiah Whiteside
U.S. District Court Judge William Griesbach dismissed Whiteside’s appeal, stating in his opinion: “The central point is that the Eighth Amendment was not designed to remedy the kinds of abstract fears and unrealized harms Plaintiff alleges here, and precedent to that effect is clear.” (Note: The NEWcomer is not directly linking to the court decision or naming the other individuals involved with this case as they have not been contacted and Whiteside’s complaint is an example of the spectrum of complaints incarcerated individuals can file.)
Closing the monolith
Whiteside said that prison staff often single out incarcerated individuals who routinely file complaints often or become known for advocating for themselves.
“Ones who file the complaints that stick. Regarding health issues or security issues, things like that, they get treated differently. I won't say it's retaliation, but they definitely get treated differently,” said Whiteside.
Whiteside said getting labeled as someone who files complaints can bring about extra, often-times unwanted attention.
“There are some of the staff that do treat you differently. Whether it's being confrontational with you or making sure that they convey to you that they don’t appreciate the fact that you’re always filing complaints,” said Whiteside.
Now on the outside, Whiteside helps incarcerated individuals access care in and out of the carceral system. WISDOM, and in turn EXPO, have been a prominent voice in criminal justice reforms, recent complaints surrounding conditions inside Wisconsin prisons throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—where at one point GBCI had the most cases last year, and a long-running effort to close GBCI.
Whiteside is not alone in this effort to close GBCI. Local representatives, such as State Representative David Steffen (R-Green Bay) and Village of Allouez President Jim Rafter—who represents the village where GBCI is located—have been vocal opponents of GBCI’s current conditions. Local officials and WISDOM members differ, however, on how to tackle closing the correctional monolith.
Rafter and Steffen have touted a plan that involves closing GBCI, relocating incarcerated individuals to other Wisconsin DOC facilities, and redeveloping the land in the hopes of fueling job creation and property tax revenues. The aforementioned DOC facilities report also lays out options for the closure of GBCI entirely as well as increasing capacity at other facilities to absorb incarcerated individuals at GBCI.
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Whiteside said WISDOM advocates for releasing lower-security population numbers to ease the strain that would occur when GBCI’s high-security population is shifted around the state. WISDOM aims to end the state's woes with crimeless revocation— a practice in which the state locks people up for violating the supervisory terms of their parole and probation, rather than for committing new crimes. A 2019 Justice Center study found that in Wisconsin, one in three people in prison are incarcerated for supervision violations. This practice leads to increased reentry and crowded prison populations.
Despite the nuances, one resounding message is clear from both sides—GBCI’s conditions lead to increased problems and the facility should be closed.
“You can treat the people living there more humanely by sending them to other places where they can get proper treatment, proper care, and proper access to the programs that they need versus having them live in unsafe or unconstitutional living conditions,” said Whiteside.
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