Prisoners in the Dairyland

By Ben Prostine

In the United States, there are more people in prisons than farmers on the land. 

This is not the joining of random statistics, but the reflection of two failures of the same political economy. The dispossession of farmers results, in part, from generations of government policies that favor transnational agribusiness and the large farms that serve as their retainers; the construction of prisons and the growing rates of incarceration stem from state policies, economic crisis, justice reform, and the criminalization of socially marginalized communities. 

In 1983, the Dairyland of Wisconsin had 7,269 people locked up in prisons and jails and there were over 40,000 dairy farms on the land. Nearly forty years later, these statistics have almost switched places; 7,292 licensed dairy herds were reported by the state at the beginning of 2020; and, as of 2018, there were 37,000 people locked up in state prisons and local jails.

This does not suggest that farmers walked out of bankrupt barns and into prisons, but rather, how the crises of capitalism transform land, labor, and the interventions of the state. 

As prison abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes on prisons in California, “The places where prisons are built share many similarities with the places prisoners come from.” The same could be said of Wisconsin where prisons built in the country mostly hold captives from the cities. 

Rural and urban places are not often represented in news media as politically aligned; more often they are presented as isolated from one another, even antagonists. Fly Over Country, a term which suggested disregard, has evolved into Trump Country, a term which deceptively suggests all of the rural Middle West is painted GOP red. 

A drawing of the state prison in Waupun, which opened in 1851.

But both rural and urban places have suffered from the same political and economic policies, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans held power. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 not only exported manufacturing jobs out of U.S. urban-industrial areas, such as Milwaukee, but also large surpluses of U.S. subsidized grains from the countryside. 

The “dumping” of cheap grains proved to be catastrophic, turning many Mexican and Central American farmers into dispossessed migrants. The U.S. response (to a U.S. engineered crisis) has been to criminalize the border, a policy that has continued in one form or another from the administrations of Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump. 

As the authors of Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice wrote in 2009, “After decades of policies designed to replace family farms with agribusinesses, the flight of farmers from the countryside is massive… In addition, huge, for-profit detention centers hold thousands of undocumented immigrants – many of whom left economically devastated farming communities in Mexico and Central America in desperate search of work.” Incarceration functions as a political tool to hold both the displaced and the impoverished. And of course, a border wall shares a similar function with a prison wall: it is a means to control the movement of people. 

While the U.S. currently leads the world in the number of covid-19 deaths, the nation also leads the world in the number of prisoners and the number of dollars dedicated to the military budget; one program is officially referred to as “public safety,” the other “defense.” But in practice, they tend to be different forms of policing the world, one mostly aimed at its own citizens and the other externally aimed at its supposed enemies. But as federal troops have recently invaded Portland, and others may be deployed to Chicago and Milwaukee, the Trump administration shows a willingness to offer “government aid” to the urban communities most afflicted by covid-19 – in the form of military occupation.

The Driftless: Wisconsin’s Scenic Penal Colony 

In the prison boom of the last fifty years, 70% of the new prisons have been constructed in rural places. In the U.S. today, prisons employ 450,000 correction officers and occupy a land mass of nearly 384,000 acres (In Wisconsin, a Department of Corrections [DOC] guard is the most common state department position). Beyond the walls of prisons, the footprint expands to include county jails, immigrant and juvenile detention centers, police departments, and the post-incarceration systems of parole and probation, or what Wisconsin officials call “extended supervision.” 

The period of 1996 to 2004 saw a 20% decline in Wisconsin crime rates but a swift rise in the number of prison beds, with 7,538 beds added to the DOC system. The rural driftless region, in the southwest corner of the state, contributed four new prisons during this period: Jackson, New Lisbon, the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility in Boscobel, and Prairie du Chien (not far from Fort Crawford where Black Hawk, a Sauk leader, was imprisoned for resisting U.S. land seizures). In 2019, the combined expenditures of these four prisons exceeded $105 million and the total staff amounted to 1,034. 

Not far from the Jackson prison is the low risk Black River Correctional Center, which functioned as a military bearing program for ten years and now encloses over 100 convicts. As of January 2020, three county jails in the area – Vernon, Juneau, and Sauk – held a total of about 100 prisoners for the state on contract. Beginning along the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chien, one could drive past all the facilities, and the 3,000 plus people imprisoned within them, in a single afternoon. 

From the cities along Lake Michigan to the hills and valleys of the driftless area, from the state capital to the north woods, mass incarceration spans the entire geography of the state (click here to see a map of DOC facilities in Wisconsin). This geographical division also bears a racial component – as predominantly white rural populations labor and receive wages from the arrest and incarceration of disproportionately Black urban populations, furthering the history of systemic racism in the upper Middle West. By way of the prison, the shared political and economic impacts of rural and urban places are distorted; what could be a means of political solidarity turns into another form of exploitation.

William Harrell, a resident of Milwaukee and a former Wisconsin prisoner, told Bloomberg CityLab in 2016, “All the industrial jobs in Wisconsin have been stripped and moved overseas, so the police are doing their job, feeding the prison system with bodies and helping keep jobs all over the northern part of the state… . We were not considered people, we were considered units, and units were dollars.”

Prisons as a Rural Jobs Program

In Wisconsin and other states, the construction of prisons is often presented not as a part of the crisis of incarceration, but as a remedy for economically depressed rural areas. The political mantra of “job creation” is put to use again. As it often is, this logic of job creation is a narrow one: regardless of whether it is temporary, degrading to ecology and body and soul, prone to automation, and/or involves the continual caging of individuals, a job is a job is a job.

And it appears that the job of a DOC guard, working in overcrowded prisons, is far from desirable. A study by the Forum for Understanding Prisons (FFUP) for the period of 2013-18 reported a high turnover rate for DOC guards, ranging from 17.8% to 26.1% annually. While the number of guards continues to increase for the DOC, the number of other positions – such as social workers, medical technicians, psychiatric staff, and administration – fell by 1,584 positions, largely replaced by private labor contracts. 

And whether white, Black, Native American, or people of color, the overwhelming number of people in prison come from the lower classes. In the U.S., one of the most heavily funded responses to poverty is incarceration; the prison becomes an intersecting point of racial and economic inequalities.

In 2019, 39% of the southwest Wisconsin prison population was Black (compared to 44% in the entire DOC system). Prisoners continue to be counted by the state as residents of wherever the prison is located, a practice the Prison Policy Initiative refers to as “prison gerrymandering.” With U.S. Census estimates for 2019 as a reference point, this means Black captives account for 70% of the Black population in Jackson County, 65% in Crawford, 34% in Grant, and 56% in Juneau. Census data conceals the fact that the majority of Black residents in these counties are, in fact, incarcerated with few if any ties to the surrounding communities. 

In Wisconsin, the most prison admissions come from a three county area in the southeast corner of the state: Kenosha, Racine, and the county and city with the highest number of admissions, Milwaukee. The prisons and contract jails of southwest Wisconsin begin to look like extensions of the Milwaukee Police Department, a department which currently consumes nearly half of the city’s budget. An arrest on one side of the state may lead to imprisonment on the other, far from one’s family and community. 

Fewer Crimes, More Prisoners 

While crime rates have continued to drop over the last thirty years in Wisconsin, incarceration rates have mostly increased (a release of 1,600 inmates this year, due in part to the increased threat of covid-19 to incarcerated populations, is an exception).  

Crime and punishment are fluid concepts in any society. In the U.S., news media, politicians, TV shows and movies have all fostered the association between crime and violence. And yet, a significant portion of Wisconsin’s prison admissions result from probation violations, what the organization Restore Our Communities (ROC Wisconsin) has called “crimeless revocations.” 

Wisconsin’s foray into “tough on crime” legislation was truth-in-sentencing laws, co-authored by former Governor Scott Walker while he served in the State Assembly in the late 1990s. Truth-in-sentencing introduced longer prison terms and eliminated parole and replaced it with the strict post-incarceration system of “extended supervision.” 

Extended supervision does not function as a transition to life beyond the cell. Instead, it often leads to re-incarceration, not due to criminal offenses but technical violations. The prison industrial complex in Wisconsin continues to reproduce itself through expanded notions of criminality – missing an appointment, failing a drug test or accepting a job without agent approval have all been causes for re-incarceration under this system. 

In 2001, a few years after Scott Walker’s truth-in-sentencing laws passed in the legislature, the DOC opened the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF). Described by former captives as hell and a place not made for humans, MSDF is the first facility in the U.S. constructed for the purpose of incarcerating people who were under “community corrections” (probation and parole, or extended supervision). As the authors of “The Wisconsin Community Corrections Story” wrote in 2019, MSDF “primarily incarcerates people who have not committed a crime.” Since 2017, several groups in Wisconsin organized around ending mass incarceration, including ROC Wisconsin and Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), have led a coalition to close the facility.  

If we add the fact that Wisconsin continues the use of solitary confinement, a legalized form of torture, and the twenty-four suicides in DOC prisons reported by the Forum for Understanding Prisons in a three-year period, the argument that prisons operate as a form of rehabilitation becomes highly questionable. The logic behind U.S. prisons could be more accurately described as incapacitation; to remove individuals from a society rather than offer a means of restoration. 

“Change Everything” 

In our age of global capitalism, the story of prisons can be understood as a story of places – places that have been outsourced, dispossessed, criminalized, and officially abandoned, places in the city and the country, across oceans and borderlines. There are prisons for those the state deems terrorists (Guantanamo Bay), prisons for those the state deems illegal (immigrant detention camps), and prisons for the jobless, addicted, poor and those who live with mental illness (correctional institutions). And as the covid-19 pandemic continues, America’s 2.2 million captives – a population larger than 15 states – remain one of the most vulnerable groups. 

In her 2007 book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore teaches us to take the wide view of the prison industrial complex – its intersections with race, gender, labor, economic crisis, land, and military – and also envision a world without it. As she writes in her upcoming book, “Abolition requires that we change one thing: everything.” Racial, ecological, social and economic justice become inseparable. 

Where do prisons fit into a society that does not dispossess people of land and living, does not police schools, neighborhoods, and borders, does not criminalize race and class, does not make mental and physical health care a luxury and provides pathways of restoration rather than punishment? Abolishing prisons doesn’t just mean closing down prisons and unlocking the doors. Abolishing the prison-industrial complex means, in the words of Angela Davis, imagining “a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions.” 

Ben Prostine lives in Crawford County, Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in several publications, including Contours: A Literary Landscape. He is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua

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*Credit to Evan Dvorsak for coining the phrase The Driftless: Wisconsin’s Scenic Penal Colony. Top photo credit: A Black Lives Matter protest outside the DOC Central Office in Madison/Young Gifted and Black Coalition.

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