If You Build it They Will Come

The Vernon County Jail and Mass Incarceration in Wisconsin

By Ben Prostine

The 128-bed Vernon County Detention Center is a monument to the far reaches of mass incarceration in Wisconsin.

Built on the edge of Viroqua in 2005 at a cost of $9.6 million, the jail expanded the number of inmate beds in the county from 25 to 128, an increase of over 500% from the old jail. 

According to uniform crime reporting data submitted to the FBI, crime has declined in Vernon County over the last five years and in 2019 the jail held a daily average of only 22 inmates from the county. The rest of the prisoners were what the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department refers to as “boarders,” either state prisoners held for the Department of Corrections (DOC) on contract or, in the jargon of the DOC, “short-term sanction holds” (that is, violators of Wisconsin’s strict post-incarceration system of “extended supervision”). The contracts and sanction holds offset the high costs of running the facility: in 2019, according to Vernon County budget records, the jail brought in around $1 million in revenue but cost $1.84 million to run.

An analysis of the prisoner profile in June 2020 revealed the majority of occupants were Black men from the cluster of counties in and around Milwaukee. In the prison-industrial complex of Wisconsin, an arrest in Milwaukee, where the police department currently consumes half of the city budget, may lead to incarceration in a county jail on the opposite side of the state.

And whether it’s sheriffs, university statisticians, or engineering consultants, future outlooks often assume more and more people will end up in Wisconsin prisons and jails. The future may not be bright, but it is incarcerated.

But what’s missing from this perspective is why. Why is mass incarceration a growing industry? What might it mean when renting out jail cells is, as Vernon County Sheriff John Spears told News 8 in 2017, a “good source of revenue”, especially considering that this revenue may rely on the disproportionate incarceration of Black men from deindustrialized cities along Lake Michigan? The population of Vernon County is not significantly different from what it was a century ago; why might it need a jail nearly five times as large? 

When analyzing the growing rates of incarceration in the last forty years, the underlying causes need to be considered, such as the criminalization of drugs, systemic racism, “tough on crime” justice reforms, the large number of prisoners living with mental health conditions (over 40% in the DOC), eroding social safety nets, and the increasingly limited economic possibilities in rural and urban places.

In the vast landscape of incarceration in Wisconsin, the Vernon County Detention Center is one of many landmarks. The story of how Vernon County went from having the oldest jail in the state to one of the most “sophisticated” could begin in 2000, when the county formed a committee to investigate the county’s “jail housing dilemma.”

Expand or Expire

The old jail was built in 1910. Despite multiple additions and updates, the jail was overcrowded by the end of the century and the county was contracting with other jails to hold as many as 20 prisoners at a time. Under Wisconsin statutes, the Vernon County jail was deemed “unsatisfactory” and the DOC would suspend the jail’s operating license if nothing was done. The Vernon County jail encountered a situation faced by rural jails around the country: expand or expire.

The jail study committee investigated various options, including the construction of a new jail, electronic monitoring systems, and the cost of housing all prisoners at other county jails. In a county board meeting in 2004, it was reported that the projected cost of a new jail was equal to or less than the projected cost of contracting prisoners with other counties.  As the meeting minutes reported, interest rates and construction costs were at an “all-time low” and, as one board member argued, contracting out Vernon prisoners would mean “exporting our jobs to different counties.” After four years of “input, study, investigation, and testimony from corrections experts,” the County Board voted, with one dissenting vote, for the construction of a new jail north of Viroqua on the old County Farm.

In 2005, the Vernon County Broadcaster described the new “state of the art” facility while it was still under construction, including the facility’s remote controlled doors and cameras and one-way visibility glass panels which “keeps inmates from knowing what staff is doing on the other side” (somewhat resembling Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison design from the 18th century). 

Like the nearby Jackson and New Lisbon prisons, completed in 1996 and 2001, the Vernon County jail was designed with the option for future expansion. A horse shoe design would allow a duplicate facility to be added on, doubling the size of the jail without significant changes to the mechanical systems. The jail would include 85 inmate cells – a double bedding resolution later passed allows for a total capacity of 128. The design of the new jail followed the philosophy later emphasized by engineering consultants in the DOC’s development plan for 2008: cost-efficiency, flexibility, and ease of expansion.

As former Sheriff Gene Cary told the Vernon County Broadcaster in the same 2005 article, both Monroe and La Crosse Counties, despite recently expanding jail capacity, were already facing overcrowding issues. “This board didn’t say we have 50 inmates in 2005 so let’s build it for 50 inmates,” Cary told the Broadcaster.  “What happens in 2015? That’s what we tried to build for.”

Farming Out Cells: State Prisoners in County Jails 

Since 2015, the number of UCR (uniform crime reporting) offenses reported by Vernon County Sheriff’s Department has significantly decreased: the average for 2015-19 was 98 criminal offenses per year compared to an average of about 165 for 2001-14. And the majority of UCR offenses for this entire period (2001-19) were property crimes, specifically larceny-theft, suggesting the financial strain of changing agricultural and rural economies.

Sheriff Cary assumed the number of prisoners would only grow, a perspective that incarceration trends and data reinforced. When the jail study committee investigated alternatives to building a new jail, their projections for 2020 estimated it would cost about $1.9 million to contract the housing of 80 county prisoners with other jails. In 2019, the Vernon County jail was operating with $1.84 million in expenditures and, as the Sheriff’s Department reported to The La Crosse Independent, the jail held a daily average of 81 inmates (occupying over 90% of the inmate cells in the facility). But only 22 of this daily average were Vernon County prisoners.

Since 2017, the Vernon County jail has contracted with the DOC to hold prisoners for the state, holding anywhere from 25 to 50 prisoners at a time according to DOC reports. An analysis of the prisoner profile at Vernon County jail for early June 2020 revealed that at least 29 prisoners came from the three county area of southeast Wisconsin (Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee) and that the prisoner population was disproportionately Black (33 convicts). Both the racial and regional disparities are true of the Wisconsin incarceration system as a whole. 

When The La Crosse Independent asked if holding DOC convicts in rural jails, far from family and community, was the best means of rehabilitation, the Sheriff’s Department declined to comment. The function of jails and prisons could be better understood as incapacitation, not rehabilitation.

“The DOC originally contacted us to see if we had space to hold state inmates,” Sheriff Spears said. “The Jail was originally built larger than required for local inmates so that there would be a chance for revenue to help offset fixed operating costs.”

Contracts with the DOC are approved by the Sheriff; the County Board has no part in the process (minutes from 2007 county board meeting did, however, note that former Sheriff Cary increased contracts at the recommendation of the finance committee). Vernon County Board President Justin Running did not respond to questions on DOC contracts and local oversight.

Building larger rural jails to potentially meet the demands of other agencies is not an isolated phenomenon but, as reported by the Vera Institute for Justice, a growing trend in the last fifty years. In the 1970s, jails in both rural and urban places mostly held prisoners from their local jurisdictions. But by 2013, 84% of jails held captives for other counties, state prisons, or federal authorities, such as U.S. Marshalls or Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

A Loss-Making Enterprise

Between 2008 and 2017, the revenue produced by the Vernon County jail averaged about $690,000 per year. Revenue for 2018 and 2019 exceeded a million dollars (2018: $1.082 million; 2019: $1.065 million). When the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department began contracting with the DOC in 2017, Sheriff Spears told News 8, “I think with the state trend and the current trend, we’re going to be able to contract with state inmates for as long as we want to do it. It will be a steady form of revenue that not only the Sheriff’s office but Vernon County as a whole can rely on for future budgets.”

But if the jail was submitted to the same kind of austere business standards as other public institutions (such as the postal service), it would be understood to operate at a “loss.” The revenue offsets the higher fixed costs that come with operating a larger “state of the art” facility. Public institutions, we argue, should not be held up to market logic; they exist for the public not profits. The question to ask is who and what is served by our public institutions – what does it mean when Wisconsin rural jails become extensions of the DOC and the Milwaukee Police Department?

According to Vernon County budget records for 2018, public safety represented around 28% of all county operating expenditures ($5.4 million out of just over $19 million) About a third of public safety was committed to the jail, mostly in the form of wages, salaries, and benefits (over 75% of all jail expenditures). Other large expenses for the jail in 2018 included food contracts ($209,000), jail maintenance (utilities cost $145,000) and other contracted services ($122,000). 

The expansion of state prisons and county jails – whether in Wisconsin or across the United States – begins to look like a jobs program for economically strained rural places. As the former Hennepin County commissioner told Minnesota Public Radio for an article on the growing trend of empty rural jails in Minnesota, “Think about it… In a smaller county seat, how important it can be for the welfare of that community to have the jail there. It represents lots of relatively high-paying jobs.” 

The County Farm and the Transformations of Social Welfare

The growth of carceral state in the last forty years can be understood, in part, as a failed endeavor to address the crises of economic restructuring, such as deindustrialization in urban places and the dispossession of farmers in rural places, and as a substitute for New Deal-style social welfare.  The land where the Vernon County Detention Center now stands, for example, once provided work and a source of public revenue, not in the form of incarceration, but with food and farming. 

The jail stands on the original 160 acres of the County Farm on the north end of Viroqua. In 1868, the County Farm was conceived as a place where the poor could receive room and board in return for their labor. By the end of the 19thcentury, the farm had expanded to 560 acres of land with a mental institution and an “old home” (which replaced the old almshouse for the poor).

Together, these two institutions housed as many as 350 residents.  The farm provided food for the two institutions and raised grains, tobacco, vegetables, pigs, dairy cows, and hens. Residents at the mental institution preserved large quantities of vegetables and fruits each season. Cream and eggs were sold to the Viroqua Creamery and plant-starts were sold locally.

By the late 20th century, the County Farm only existed in name; no county-operated farm provided food to local institutions and the remaining farmland had been sold or rented out to a seed company. The mental institution had closed and the building was torn down. The “old folks” home was replaced by a modern institution for elderly residents and those in need of physical therapy (Vernon Manor). And in 2004, the County began to construct a new government facility on the County Farm: a $9.65 million county jail.

The jail overlooks former parcels of county land that were recently bulldozed and developed with public funds to be converted into a business park. No local farms provide food to the jail; according to Law Enforcement committee notes from April 2019, meals were contracted with Aramark, a multi-billion dollar corporation criticized for its exploitation of the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. (In 2017, the UE Local 1121 union in La Crosse performed a successfulwalkout strike at an Aramark Laundry Services plant over what the union referred to as “sweat shop-like conditions”). 

As sociologists Michael R. Daley and Peggy Pittman-Munke write, county farms, or poor farms, were “prevalent in the U.S. as a form of locally based social and economic support from the 19th century until the New Deal in the late 1930s.” Social Security, job and housing programs, and later Medicare and Medicaid all provided federal relief that diminished the need for local intervention. 

But at the federal level, social relief has suffered from austerity over the last fifty years. In this same period, prisons and jails have become a “growth industry.” These publicly funded institutions often serve as substitutes for mental health care, drug rehabilitation, social safety nets and a serious means to address the fall out of deindustrialization, the erosion of rural economies, and the long history of systemic racism and class relations in the United States. 

Governor Evers: Cut Prison Population in Half

Before his election to state governor in 2018, Tony Evers voiced support for proposals to cut the state’s prison population in half. Besides the slight release of 1,600 individuals due to the threat of the covid-19 virus in overcrowded prisons, little has been done and the prison population is beginning to rise again.

If Evers campaign statements were put into action, it would most likely mean the end of Vernon County’s contract with the DOC and the closing down of multiple prisons in Wisconsin (campaigns to close down Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility and Green Bay Correctional Institution already exist). 

The loss of the DOC contracts could create a new “jail housing dilemma” for the county: not an overcrowded jail, but an emptier one. This became a reality for Houston County, Minnesota, after they constructed a similar sized “state of the art” facility in 2011. But once the capacity for incarceration exists, it also has the potential to be filled in a multitude of ways. In the prison-industrial complex of the U.S., prisoners could come from anywhere: migrants detained by ICE or other prisoners held by federal authorities. 

As state budgets become increasingly strained by the pandemic, defunding the DOC and reallocating those funds to social programs such as health care, rent relief, and food programs would be a small step towards real justice and a future where the prison-industrial complex becomes obsolete.

And perhaps that future could include a revised sense of the county farm: old privatized land returned to the community again, centered on ecological farming, restoration and education and providing food for the community and carbon for the soil.  But such transformative changes, let alone cutting the prison population in half, will not happen without a widespread grassroots movement, from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi and beyond. 

Additional reporting by Evan Dvorsak. Photos of the Vernon County Jail by Dana Scheffen. Ben Prostine is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua. Print sources for this article: Vernon County Budget and Resolutions Books, Vernon County Historical Museum Archives.

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