Church coalition launches prison reform campaign

Prison cell file photo.
File photo.

MADISON (AP) – A coalition of church congregations launched a campaign Wednesday calling for reforms within the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, including letting more prisoners out on parole, releasing aging inmates, alleviating overcrowding and ending solitary confinement.

WISDOM, an umbrella organization of congregations from around Wisconsin, began its “Reform Now” campaign with a news conference in the state Capitol. Organizers focused on the parole prong of the campaign, railing about the Parole Commission failing to release hundreds of eligible prisoners.

Inmates sentenced before Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing law went into effect in 2000 are eligible for parole. The commission is supposed to consider whether inmates have reached their parole eligibility date, served sufficient time, shown positive change, have viable plans plan for housing and employment and present a reduced risk of danger to the public. The commission is made up of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s appointees.

WISDOM leaders pointed to 2013 figures from the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau that show nearly 3,000 prisoners are eligible for parole and keeping them locked up costs the state $96 million per year.

“There’s no meaningful consideration for people seeking parole,” said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, director of the Prison Ministry Project of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Madison.

The organizers and their supporters filed into a state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council meeting later in the day. Corrections Secretary Ed Wall and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, the committee’s co-chairs, listened as inmates’ wives and girlfriends questioned why their loved ones haven’t been paroled.

After the meeting, the women surrounded Wall. He asked them to email him details and said he would ask the parole commission’s chairwoman, Kathleen Nagle, to review their cases.

WISDOM plans to hold a monthly news conference every month through October to draw attention to aging inmates, overcrowding and solitary confinement, which the group likens to torture.

Wall told a reporter afterward that a Department of Corrections committee is reviewing solitary confinement issues but he doesn’t control the Parole Commission. He said he believes WISDOM and the department can find common ground on other issues.

“We all want to reduce the prison population. We all want to reduce recidivism,” he said. “But how do we get there?”

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