BOSCOBEL - Construction began in September on the new, $8.9 million “inmates program building” at Boscobel’s maximum security prison—the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPS). The project is scheduled to be completed in October 2021, and appears it will meet that target date, according to Warden Gary Boughton.
“I think they’re on schedule, they may be a week or two off,” Boughton said. “They’re pushing now to get the shell of the building up so that during the winter they can be working inside.”
Located on the west side of the prison, the building “will accommodate the recreational and educational needs of the more than 400 prisoners at the 18,270-square-foot facility. It will include a gym, exercise area, classrooms, a cosmetology education space, a hobby/music room, a chapel and offices,” according to a 2019 press release from the Department of Corrections.
The new building will be constructed inside the prison’s current fences, with the officer-control station centrally located to enhance security and visibility and not impact the perimeter security fences.”
“It’s a big project.”
“It’s a big project,” said Jill Dressler, Corrections Management Services Director, who is overseeing the project with the Superintendent of Building and Grounds. “We’ve been requesting this building for a few years and we’re happy to have it.”
The former ‘Supermax’ was built in 1999 to house the “worst of the worst,” with inmates held in solitary cells up to 23.5 hours per day. Today, the prison population is primarily comprised of general population inmates, with only one of the facility’s five housing units designated for segregated inmates. That has created space and security problems in a prison never designed for its current purpose.
A current staffing shortage of 35-40 security personnel has nearly all sergeants and Correctional Officers (CO) working overtime, with some working two, 8-hour shifts a day three days a week. Ordered overtime (OOT) is not uncommon, something the officers call “jamming,” with some CO’s working 80 hours or more a week.
Tensions running high
Tensions are running high at the prison, as evidenced by this comment from one CO who requested to remain anonymous. “Everyone works OT damn near every day. It’s super safe for staff and inmates when we are all like zombies,” he said sarcastically. “Today is a good example of the stupidity here. We don’t have rec but we filled all the extra spots to do rec instead of letting people go home to get rest and time away to de-stress. How much longer before someone gets killed or crashes and dies on the way home? Sixteen-hour days are the new normal shift here. No one ever goes home these days unless it’s after a 16-hour shift.”
For example, during Friday’s first shift four units had areas that were “Vacant/Low Staffing,” as well as positions like activities/rec and escorts.
Warden Boughton is well aware of the situation and is working to alleviate it, although it is a statewide problem, with WSPF fourth or fifth in high rates of vacancy among staff at Wisconsin correctional institutions.
“We have a vacancy rate right now, but we’re hoping by 2021 the vacancy rates are less,” Boughton said. “We’re fourth or fifth as far as high vacancy rates. We’re certainly not at the top.”
Boughton said they don’t see many transfers at WSPF, but there have been stories of CO’s selling their shifts or calling in sick to avoid the non-stop overtime.
“I’m absolutely aware that we have a high (amount of) overtime and I certainly see our staff is tired,” Boughton said. “They’re working a lot of hours. We’re going to try something new with the restricted housing unit. We’re going to do 12-hour shifts. That should begin in January, hopefully.”
Boughton said the DOC is working to get more people applying for correctional jobs. Staff will get a 2 percent raise in January and DOC Secretary Kevin Carr is hoping to get a new compensation plan with raises in the next biennial budget.
“For me the biggest challenge, and I think on it daily, is how to help staff with this overtime,” Boughton said. “I’m always watching the overtime, trying to come up with days to reduce it. We’ve modified operations so we can reduce some staffing in a safe manner, so we can get people out of here earlier. You have to manage the long hours people are working, but also not making it unsafe for the people who are working still here. So we’re looking at modified activities that reduce out-of-cell movement. Then we can look at positions we employ so we can get people on overtime out. If it’s 12 hours or 14 hours, it’s a long day.”
As if severe staffing shortages weren’t enough, now WSPF is dealing with COVID-19. Although staff members have tested positive, the prison reported its first inmate testing positive early last week out of the 454 inmates being held there. None have tested positive since.
Boscobel has seen the least amount of positive COVID-19 cases among inmates statewide, with none reported prior to last week. Statewide, the number of inmates testing positive for the virus topped 8,000 last week, including 284 at Prairie du Chien Correctional. Just a week earlier, Prairie du Chien had just 18 cases, proving how fast the virus can spread.
Among staff, over 1,700 DOC employees had self-reported testing positive as of last week.
COVID-19 has put the brakes on many things, including inmate transfers. Although new inmates are coming in they are quarantined for two weeks prior to being transferred to Boscobel and an additional two weeks at WSPF.
The DOC recently sent out recommendations and mandates to slow the spread of positive COVID cases at its institutions, including testing staff every other week.
“It outlines the restrictions in place on meetings, no programming or education for inmates in order to mitigate the spread,” Boughton said, adding that WSPF is accepting new inmates, but with safety restrictions. “Inmates are quarantined for two weeks before they come to us, but we still quarantine them two weeks when we get them, because we really do now want it in the institution.”
The facility does have one wing set aside strictly for quarantine.
“So if you’re showing any symptoms you do not even go back to your unit, you go directly to the housing unit with the quarantine wing,” Boughton explained.
“Right now education is suspended, but the student inmate barbers at a certain level in the program are still cutting hair, they’re just not going to class.” Boughton said. “People still need haircuts, although their movement is limited to the unit they’re on and the one across the hall.”
Correctional officers and other staff have their temperatures taken daily, and if after several tests their temperature remains high they are not allowed in the facility.“You do not go back into the institution until you are screened, and that’s everybody, every day, every shift.” Boughton said, “and masks are mandatory for every staff member and inmate, except when they are outside for leisure time or in their cells.”