The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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December 7, 2001 Issue
Eye on the Capitol

Supermax challenges us to consider how we punish, protect

Wisconsin bishops remind us that we need to protect all, even those who do wrong


By M. Colleen Wilson

The Supermax Correctional Institution in Boscobel continues to receive inmates and criticism about the way those inmates are treated. Supermax, which opened two years ago, is designed to take the most violent and difficult offenders and separate them from the general prison population with the goal of changing unacceptable and inappropriate behaviors through the use of severe behavior controls, including extreme isolation.

Only rarely will a convicted felon get sentenced to Supermax by a criminal court. As former Gov. Tommy Thompson liked to say, inmates earn their stay at Supermax by violently acting out against staff or fellow inmates at the more traditional state correctional facilities, posing a significant escape threat, or participating in gang activity.

Or do they? A lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners housed in Supermax and pending in federal court led the judge assigned to the case to order Department of Corrections officials to remove five Supermax inmates who suffer from mental illness.

The court order further requires that inmates who use psychotropic drugs, have been treated for mental illness in the past or have attempted suicide will receive independent mental health exams for purposes of determining if they, too, should be transferred. Is the Department housing inmates at Supermax for mental health conditions that need treatment, not exacerbation?

Advocates and the press continue to question the incarceration of several other inmates at Supermax. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently revealed that about 21% of inmates placed at Supermax are there to free segregation space in other institutions, not because they are the "real bad actors" for which the state built the facility.

Advocates fear that the Department of Corrections will shift inmates whose behavior may not warrant a stay in Supermax as a means of justifying the facility, built at a cost to taxpayers of $47.5 million.

Pressures from the pending lawsuit and advocates has led to Department-imposed changes at Supermax, including prison sponsored television programming and clocks in all inmate cells, improved heating, and expanded use of face-to-face visits instead of video conference visits for inmates.

Department officials continue to maintain that Supermax positively affects conditions in other state correctional facilities, not because inmates fear assignment to Supermax, but because inmates who have made life difficult for prisoners at the other facilities have been sent to Supermax.

In 1999, Wisconsin's bishops issued a statement on crime and punishment in Wisconsin, entitled "Public Safety, the Common Good, and the Church." In that document, the bishops' reminded the faithful of our state that we all have a responsibility to contribute to the common good. Therefore, we are expected to protect ourselves from wrongdoers, but in so doing, we have a responsibility to consider the needs of all, even offenders.

The bishops' reminder is critical as we think about Supermax. How do we balance the need to protect offenders from other inmates who prey on them? Is severe isolation from family, friends, staff, even other inmates, a Catholic response to the reality of crime in Wisconsin, a Catholic response that acknowledges that even the most hardened criminal is eligible for God's grace?

Even from the practical consideration of dollars and cents, we as Catholics need to consider how effectively our tax dollars are being spent to operate Supermax.

Cost per prisoner is estimated to be $35,700 per year. If an inmate transitions out of Supermax and eventually returns to the community only to offend again, have our tax dollars been used to further the common good?

The Department of Corrections has recently taken steps to slightly modify the environment that is Supermax. As Catholics we need to press public officials to define the common good in terms of its impact on all human beings, not just those we deem "deserving."


(Wilson is associate director for education of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops. Its website is WisconsinCatholic.com.)



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