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'Supermax' not so super anymore as segregation numbers decrease
Many changes since opening 15 years ago
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While the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility is still a maximum security prison, it’s a far different institution than it was when it opened 15 years ago as “Supermax” and then-Governor Tommy Thompson touted it as home to the “worst of the worst.”

The Boscobel prison marked its 15-year anniversary last Wednesday afternoon with a visit by three of its four former wardens and a tour of the facility for staff family members.

“God it’s good to be here and see all these familiar faces,” said Jerry Berge, the prison’s first warden, serving from 1999-2005. “I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since I retired and 15 years since this place opened. Can you even say ‘Supermax’ anymore?”

“You can,” replied a staff member, referring to a 2002 class action lawsuit that changed the name from Supermax to Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, among other changes.

Berge tried to put the perceived need for a supermaximum security prison in Wisconsin in the late 1990’s into perspective by citing prison population pressures, increases in violent inmate behavior and the political climate at the time.

“Within the wardens’ circle there was a lot of this discussion. We needed more beds; we needed more max beds,” Berge recalled. “We made visits to the supermax in Washington State, as well as the federal facility in Florence, Colorado. What we wanted was 300 beds in three wings at each of our maximum security facilities: Waupun, Colombia and Green Bay.”

That’s not what they got. In March 1995 the State Building Commission recommended the state consider a supermax prison. Two years later, with the blessing and encouragement of local leaders, the state decided to build its next maximum security prison—Supermax—in Boscobel.

“The people locally here lobbied really, really hard to get a correctional facility here, and they were successful at that, despite a lot of competition in the state from other communities,” Berge said. “They were looking at jobs and economic development.”

Supermax was originally envisioned to have 400 beds, but the state budget allowed for a 509-bed, free standing institution—not 300 beds spread across three institutions.

“For which we took a lot of heat at the time,” Berge said. “Governor Thompson, to say the least, became a huge supporter.”

In his State of the State address, Thompson dropped phrases like “worst of the worst,” and “an inmate’s worst nightmare.”

With support from the governor and the legislature, as well as Boscobel city leaders, construction on a 509-bed supermaximum security prison began in December 1998.

“We were able to convince the community that it was not a security threat, but an economic boon,” Berge said. “And what happened? Twenty thousand people showed up at the open house (nine months later).”

Supermax also generated a lot of media interest from around the country, as well as protesters. The Discovery Channel showed up to film a documentary. National Public Radio interviewed Berge in what he called “the toughest interview I ever did.” There was also Amnesty International and local opponent Father James Murphy of UW-Platteville.

Priest places curse

“Amnesty International spent an entire day here on site, but we couldn’t let them into the inner sanctum of the facility. That didn’t play well,” Berge said. “Father Murphy placed a curse on the institution. That actually happened. When I told the local Catholic priest, Father John Urban, he came out and blessed the institution. ‘Now the curse is gone,’ he said. Little did we know it might not have. The name Supermax became a real curse to us.”

Berge and the next warden, Pete Huibregtse, recalled that the Supermax name originated by accident. It was actually the project name, but since the Building Commission didn’t come up with an alternative, it stuck as the facility’s official name.

“Even though the community was extremely supportive of the project, they did not want it named after Boscobel or Grant County,” Berge said.

Since the day it opened, Supermax was plagued by lawsuits and legal challenges. Berge estimates he was personally named in at least 1,500 lawsuits.

“There were lots of them; it was amazing,” he said. “But then came the class action, the mother of all lawsuits—and it went on and on and on.”

To avoid a trial, the state agreed to settle the lawsuit by addressing over 100 issues of confinement. Night lights were dimmed, air conditioning was  added to cells, and outdoor recreation facilities were built, to name just a few.

Now, 15 years after it opened, Supermax is called the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, and it’s a far cry from what it looked like in 1999.

“The Department of Corrections did not plan for a single standing, 509-bed Supermax in Grant County, but that’s what they got,” Berge concluded.

The current warden is Boscobel native Gary Boughton, who replaced Tim Haines in June. Haines now has Boughton’s old job as warden of the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution.

Boughton has inherited a prison that is quite different than the one Berge worked at. By the end of the year WSPF will have more general population inmates than segregated ones. And those “gen pop” inmates—in prison speak—need programming, not an easy proposition in a facility that was designed to keep inmates in their cells virtually 24/7.

“They built it so it could never be converted to General Population, but they did and now we have a GP population,” Boughton said.

Haines began the process in 2006 when he instituted the High Risk Offender Program, designed to reduce the security risk to inmates and staff as the facility began the transition to more General Population inmates.

“The thinking was to get them transitioned to a GP environment,” Boughton said.

GP inmates arrive

The first General Population inmates arrived in 2007. Fifty more arrived the following year and another 50 in 2009. Earlier this year there were 298 inmates in segregation and 211 in General Population. By the end of this year that will shift to 271 General Population and 240 segregated inmates.

“This December for the first time we will more General Population than segregated inmates,” Boughton said. “This has resulted in a physical plant issue. The original facility was designed to be all segregation.”

Nevertheless, Boughton and his 275-member staff have adjusted, General Population, maximum security inmates are now working in the kitchen, as painters, gardeners, barbers and even a translator.

“For me, programming is a big deal,” Boughton said. “Our core mission is housing dangerous people. We are good at that, and will continue to do that, but a lot of these guys are going to get out some day and we want to prepare them for that.”

Boughton has instituted programs dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, another called Aggressive Replacement Therapy, and one for “lifers” who will never get out of prison.

“But there’s a lot more that needs to be done at WSPF,” Boughton said. “I’m proud of this institution and the people who work here.”

Visitors then had an opportunity to meet those people as Boughton and the former wardens joined staff members for a tour of the 24-acre facility that cost $44 million to build in 1999.