The state Assembly Committee on Corrections heard nearly two hours of testimony Tuesday on a bill that would clear the way to sell the aging Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI) and hire a contractor to build a new prison that would be staffed by the Department of Corrections.
State Rep. David Steffen, R-Allouez, told the committee his bill would create a “partnership facility,” where “the private sector owns the brick and mortar, they maintain their own brick and mortar, but all staffing, all management, all guards, are state employees,” no later than Nov. 1, 2022.
The former Green Bay Reformatory, built in 1998, is designed to hold 749 inmates but is currently about 45 percent over capacity with more than 1,000 men incarcerated, and the costs of operation and upkeep are very high, Steffen said. The price of bringing the ancient building up to code would be more than the price of building a new prison, he said.
The existing prison is also not safe, with attacks on guards becoming more frequent, he said.
Steffen and state Sen. Frank Lasee, who sponsored the bill in the state Senate, spent more than hour answering questions about the proposal from their fellow lawmakers.
The bill calls for the new, 1,300-bed prison to be built either in Brown County or an adjacent county. Much speculation has been directed at Kewaunee County, especially the Wisconsin 54 highway corridor in the county’s northwest corner between Walhain and Luxemburg.
Kewaunee County Board Chairman Robert Weidner said he was asked to testify at the hearing but declined the opportunity. He has said a new prison could bring jobs and – if it remains in private ownership – property tax dollars into the county, but he is not prepared to support or oppose the bill.
“I don’t know where that’s going,” he told the County Board during its regular May meeting Tuesday night. “If I get direction from the board and the community, I will take direction from the board and the community.”
Only three people who were not state legislators spoke at the hearing. Allouez Village President Jim Rafter and Village Administrator Brad Lange spoke in support of the bill, while Susan McMurray, lobbyist for the state employees union, spoke in opposition.
Rafter said the bill makes sense for his landlocked community, which must depend on redevelopment for growth. The GBCI is located along Wisconsin 172 and the Fox River in an area that could make for a “cool community” if redeveloped, he said.
The presence of the prison makes the village a tougher sell for real estate professionals, Rafter said.
As people look for homes in the Green Bay area, “they see the prison, and they say let’s take a look at De Pere, let’s go look at Green Bay, let’s go on the West Side, because no one wants to live next to a prison,” he said.
“(Redevelopment of) the prison obviously opens up a major, major opportunity for our community,” Lange said.
McMurray, representing Council 32 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), said the workers “really appreciate” that the bill’s authors have taken steps to ensure that the new prison staff and management would be state employees.
“I have to say, though, that my members are very, very, very worried about the road that this bill is going down,” she said. “They don’t believe that this is going to end up being a public facility. They think this is the road to privatization of prisons, and not just Green Bay.”
McMurray also said the wording of the bill is too general, too vague and lacks accountability.
“I think there needs to be a whole lot more safeguards built into this proposal … If I was in your shoes, I would want a whole lot more measures included in this bill to make sure they’re doing this right,” she said. “This is a big deal.”