By Patricia Obletz, member: Confronting Mass Incarceration (CMI), Milwaukee Turners Programming Committee and MKE Mental Health Task Force Steering Committee
The Milwaukee Turners Confronting Mass Incarceration Committee co-sponsored the Milwaukee Mental Health Task Force 2019 Forum, Re-imagining Justice for Wisconsinites with Mental Illness, April 29, 2019, at Independence First.
About 90 people attended this discussion of solutions to the alarming overcrowded, understaffed and sometimes abusive jails and prisons in our state.
A conservative estimate shows us that more than half of prisoners have a mental illness and/or a substance use disorder.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, 2/3rds of the 740,000 people held in local jails across the US have not been convicted of a crime. They are often detained because of a probation or parole violation, or a mental health or substance use crisis, or they simply don’t have money for bail. Pretrial detention leads to worse outcomes, personally and legally, for poor people and people of color, compared to similarly situated people who are able to secure pretrial release. Wisconsin is the worst state in America for incarcerating Black people.
On December 31, 2018, Vera Institute of Justice researchers collected data on the number of people in state and federal prisons, showing that most states in America reduced their prison populations. But not in Wisconsin. Here, the number of prisoners increased from 23,945 to 24,064.
That’s why the following distinguished panelists joined to discuss solutions to reducing the prison population. Tonight’s moderator is Rev. Willie E. Brisco, WISDOM President, former Deputy Superintendent, MKE County House of Corrections
Tonight’s speakers are: Christine Apple, Ph.D., Chief Psychologist, WI DOC Milwaukee Community Corrections; Wisconsin State Assembly Representative David Bowen; Ranking Member of the Committee on Corrections; Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr; Activist Alan Schultz, EX-incarcerated People Organizing – Community Organizer, WISDOM; Incarcerated Workers Organizing Co.– National Steering Committee Industrial Workers of the World – Milwaukee
All addressed the following concerns:
• Their vision for the reform of the criminal justice system, including for people with mental illnesses
• Treatment of people with mental illness in prison – what are current practices and what needs to change?
• Re-entry: supporting people with mental illness when they return to the community from prison
• What can community members do to help promote reform, including to decrease the number of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system?
Secretary Carr emphasized that people can be rehabilitated. That efforts to help people reenter the community “must intensify and engage trusted programs to help returnees avoid crimeless revocations.” He said that the WI Department of Corrections “was the largest mental health institution in the state . . . .
“The War on Drugs had a disparate effect on African Americans. Dual Diagnoses (mental and substance use disorders) make it harder for them. We should keep them out of prison and in treatment. Changing some guidelines created the Federal First Step Act: https://www.firststepact.org/ . . . “
He implored us to call our legislators – before July 1, 2019 -- and tell them to support the Medicaid Expansion bill to fund treatment programs that reduce the number of prisoners. Wisconsin has about 24,000+ prisoners, far exceeding the national average; lengths of stay on parole are estimated at nearly twice (1.7 times) the national average (Justice Lab analysis of Kaeble 2018, Appendix Table 5).
Rev. Brisco said that law enforcement and corrections officers need to be paid properly and trained properly to improve the quality of behavior among police and corrections officers with arrestees and prisoners. Budget for that.
Dr. Apple replied that “No one with a mental illness should be imprisoned.” She said the DOC needs to invest in mental health services in K-12 schools, expand expungements and establish adequate services, such as treatment and transportation to help returnees with mental illnesses receive the treatment they need. She promoted using a three-tiered approach from school age on up.
All emphasized the need to adequately fund additional community-based and carceral mental health services agents to cover the need for help, including K-12 students. Governor Tony Evers’ budget included adding not quite enough mental health aid to public schools – at the start of the road to wellness and independence or crimes and madness or homeless.
Problem: These services depend on the passage of the Medicaid Expansion Bill with its influx of $1.1 billion dollars. But the GOP in Wisconsin still objects to helping millions of Wisconsinites get the medical help they need to become independent taxpayers.
Rep. Bowen also made the case for rousing residents to call -- before July 1, 2019 -- their legislators and request they vote yes to Medicaid Expansion, ensuring more mental health services, and to help register people to vote and get them to the polls. He added that they’re still working on bills on revocation issues, like getting mobile mental health services teams in rural and urban areas around the state. He also championed the reduction of stigma around mental illnesses. He spoke against the practice of unhealthy overtime in some prisons, which leads to unnecessary abusive incidents.
On Treatment in prison
Sec. Carr said, “Mental health care results in fewer suicide attempts, assaults on corrections officers – there’s a drastic shortage of psychiatrists. We’re trying to hire more psychiatrists for more money, but so far, no luck.”
Activist Schultz said that overmedicating must stop and that new and more rehabilitation programs must begin early in individual incarcerations. “Prisons do not cure or mitigate mental illnesses, they exacerbate them . . . .
“Immediately ending the practice of solitary confinement would be a great start to reform, given how many studies show that it creates mental health issues and crises.
“We need to depopulate the WI DOC and attempt to halve our incarcerated population,” Schultz said. “We are 30% over capacity. The WI DOC system is understaffed and overcrowded,” Schultz said, adding that the worst crisis in the system is Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF): https://closemsdf.org/
Schultz said that people returning to the community with a mental illness should be transferred out of Corrections and into the Department of Health and Human Services. Sec. Carr said the DOC employs staff from DHHS.
Rep. Bowen said more care teams with more responsibility are needed to deescalate crises. He said that there is some bipartisan agreement on bills to reform revocation policies.
Dr. Apple said, “We need better mental health records sharing between the prison and medical communities, as well as within the prison system.” She said there was need for more forensic peer specialists and talk therapists who will make more personal connections with prisoners, avoid assumptions and listen carefully.
All agreed that Wisconsin’s carceral system is in crisis and in need of reform. But the political will to implement programs that work is negated by the majority party, despite overcoming the Republican governor. That’s why, as Rep. Bowen and Sec. Carr stressed, every able human being needs to help get out the vote and vote for the 2020 election.
Sec. Carr added that the DOC employs staff from the Dept. of Health and Human Services and there is always room for improvement, including expanding staff trainings to include mental health crises. He also acknowledged that there were problems hiring medical staff – “But we need to pay them at the going rate for this difficult work. But, the impetus to improve is moving forward and is gaining much interest,” he said, reminding us to get on the phone before July 1, 2019 and ask our legislators to support Medicaid Expansion in our state budget.
The Milwaukee Mental Health Task Force is the voice of the community on issues related to the quality and responsiveness of mental health and substance abuse disorder services.