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FOX 11 Investigates: New inmate restrictions

Outside Green Bay Correctional Institution in 2011. (WLUK/Don Steffens)

ALLOUEZ (WLUK) -- A Green Bay state senator says changes at the state prison in Allouez have led to a dangerous situation.

One prisoner, who reached out to FOX 11 Investigates, says he fears for his safety.

FOX 11 talked with a former correctional officer who has suffered from the violence at the prison in the past when inmate tensions rise.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections alerted Green Bay Correctional Institution inmates two weeks ago that staff shortages are forcing changes in the prison's operation. The memo addressed to all staff and inmates, and obtained by FOX 11 Investigates, spells out the changes.

On Sundays, instead of being able to get outside for recreation, or go to the mess hall, prisoners will remain in their cells.

That one day of the week, all three meals will be served in their cells. The memo calls the changes "temporary." It states they are the result of staff shortages, and necessary to run a safe and secure facility.

"I don't know if locking them up on a Sunday without recreation and not being able to go to the mess hall for food, you know, I think it's a dangerous situation," said State Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay.

Hansen has been outspoken on the need to improve benefits for prison staff, and give them a voice making conditions safer.

"It's definitely a concern since 2011 when Act 10 was put in place," Hansen said.

Act 10 eliminated some state worker benefits and rights.

"So the people are leaving and we're losing people in corrections. They're short again big time. It's a situation that is going to get more and more dangerous," Hansen said.

The state released figures to FOX 11 Investigates. According to those figures, as of Sept. 16, the prison was operating with 232 correctional officers and sergeants. That's 40 positions short of the 272 needed to be fully staffed. (Update: WI DOC spokesman corrected numbers originally provided to FOX 11. Total authorized full time correctional officers and sergeants is 232, while current staff level is at 192 for those positions. The total number of positions short remains 40.)

A DOC spokesman declined an on camera interview, but in a statement, said, "Our main priority is to recruit for open positions and work to retain staff until all open positions are filled."

Denis O'Neill worked as a correctional officer at the Green Bay prison for 26 years. He was forced to retired two years after suffering injuries in an inmate attack.

"I wouldn't encourage anyone to be an officer unless the state miraculously changes some policies and makes it a more attractive job," O'Neill said.

A corrections spokesman points out officers and sergeants were given an 80-cents-an-hour raise last year.

And even with the extra money, staff vacancies are up. O'Neill says eliminating inmate privileges adds to the tension.

"If you take away their recreation, you know, chances are they will retaliate some way, some how," O'Neill said.

He's is not the only one raising concerns. FOX 11 Investigates received this letter last week from an inmate at the prison complaining about understaffing. He wrote "I fear for my safety due to the violence sure to ensue as has been rumored to happen."

"If you've been there and locked in your cell almost all day, I mean, it's a challenge," Hansen said. "Some people will say, 'that's good, they earned it.' But we've got to do all that we can to make it safe for the inmates and for the officers."

While the restrictions were announced more than two weeks ago, there is no timetable given on when or if the operations will return to normal.

FOX 11 Investigates reached out to corrections officials for an on-camera interview, but they declined, providing instead only a written statement.

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