How Scott Walker Built a Career Sending Wisconsin Inmates to Private Prisons

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is perhaps best known for dramatically weakening public and private unions in his state—something that has propelled him to the top of the 2016 Republican presidential field.

Over Walker’s long career in state politics, he also accomplished another transformation: increasing Wisconsin’s incarceration rate while making sure private companies had a larger role managing those prisoners.
He rarely talks about it anymore, but Walker’s efforts as a young legislator didn’t just change the Wisconsin criminal justice system—they helped fill Walker’s campaign coffers with money from private prison operators as he ascended from the state legislature to the governor’s mansion.
During his nine years in the state house, from 1993 to 2002, Walker often campaigned as a tough-on-crime Republican who promised new efforts “to protect our families, our senior citizens and our property.”

Walker pushed dozens of proposals in the state house to lengthen criminal penalties, for everything from perjury to privacy invasion to intoxicated boating. In just the 1997–98 legislative session, Walker authored or co-sponsored twenty-seven different bills that either expanded the definition of crimes, increased mandatory minimums for offenders, or curbed the possibility of parole.
Walker’s biggest victory in this area was the state’s “Truth-in-Sentencing” legislation, which ended parole opportunities for many categories of prisoners, and increased prison time for others. “The time has come to keep violent criminals in prison for their full terms,” Walker said in 1996 as he advocated for the bill. Later, as chair of the state assembly’s Committee on Corrections and the Courts in 1998, Walker shepherded the legislation into state law.

At the time, Walker openly credited the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for Truth-in-Sentencing’s success. “Clearly ALEC had proposed model legislation,” Walker toldAmerican RadioWorks in 2002. “And probably more important than just the model legislation, [ALEC] had actually put together reports and such that showed the benefits of truth-in-sentencing and showed the successes in other states. And those sorts of statistics were very helpful to us when we pushed it through, when we passed the final legislation.”
While Walker advocated imprisoning more people, he was also paradoxically decrying overpopulation in Wisconsin’s prisons. “Massive overcrowding threatens our public safety,” Walker announced in a press release less than a month after Truth-in-Sentencing was passed. Indeed, by the early 2000s, there were more than 20,000 prisoners in a prison system originally designed for 10,000.
Walker conceded that his bills imposing harsher sentences exacerbated the problem. “Criminals will be spending more time in jail, and that means the population will increase as well,” he told theWauwatosa News-Times.

His solution wasn’t to stop imprisoning nonviolent offenders, however, but to put them in private prisons. Walker, like many state legislators during this time, argued that private prisons cost lessyet deliver the same quality as their public counterparts.

Decades of research, however, have shown the opposite to be true: across the country, private prisons have been plagued by lax security, falsifying records to cover up understaffing, rampantprisoner mistreatment, and in many cases actually cost taxpayers more money than public prisons.
Private prisons also have a clear incentive to increase prison populations—in fact, most private prisons demand a “lockup quota” whereby the state guarantees that most private prison beds will be filled (or would pay for unused beds if crime rates dip). The quota is typically 90 percent, though in some instances can be as high as 100 percent.

Walker still wanted private prisons to play a big role in Wisconsin. But the tricky part was that Wisconsin laws forbid private prisons inside the state. So Walker found a pretty good work-around. In 1997, he voted to allow the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to ship inmates to private prisons in other states. This built off legislation Walker co-sponsored in 1995 that first allowed Wisconsin to ship inmates off to public prisons elsewhere.

Following the bill’s passage, when the DOC formally proposed a contract in 1998 to ship inmates to out-of-state private prisons, Walker was a vocal advocate, boasting online about his work on the matter. “This plan keeps inmates locked up and it saves taxpayers money,” Walker said.
Throughout 1990s and early 2000s, with Walker at the helm of the assembly’s Committee on Corrections and the Courts, Wisconsin shipped around 5,000 inmates to Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Minnesota. Most of the prisoners, along with almost $45 million in Wisconsin taxpayer money, went to private prisons operated by one company: the Corrections Corporation of America.
CCA is the largest private prison operator in the country, running more than sixty prisons with over 90,000 beds across the country, and generating $1.7 billion in revenue. It’s the biggest player in a private prison industry in the United States that has spent $45 million in the last decade on political contributions and lobbyists.

In states across the country, the private prison industry was pushing legislatures to send more prisoners its way, and this was certainly the case in Wisconsin. When ALEC was providing the text for the Truth-in-Sentencing, CCA was a corporate member of the group. (It left ALEC in 2010).
CCA was also a major contributor to Scott Walker’s political career. During Walker’s decade in the State Assembly, just fifteen people gave the maximum contribution to his campaigns. Two worked for CCA, including then-CEO Doc Crants and then-board member Henri Wedell, who owns $25 million in CCA stock. Both men live in Tennessee, not Wisconsin. Over the course of Walker’s political career, CCA executives have contributed more than $7,500 to his campaigns.