Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Wall spoke with The Wheeler Report this week about his agency and the challenges it faces.
As a new department secretary what are your goals for the agency?
We have a tremendously talented workforce at DOC. We are the largest cabinet agency, and our mission of public safety is our greatest responsibility. We are fully committed to public safety, to the safety of our employees, and to the safety of those under our care and custody. We are focusing on our staff and on our processes. We are making sure we make fiscally responsible decisions while still meeting our public safety and personnel needs.
What are some major accomplishments for your agency?
The best thing we have is our staff. Our correctional institutions operate like a city. We have nurses, doctors, janitorial staff, officers, administration, etc. The staff who keep these institutions running safely is our biggest strength.
Wisconsin has a history of being very progressive. We would like to see a reduction in prison population. We do not choose the people who come into our prisons, that is the justice system. We simply work with and treat those who are sent to us to carry out their sentences. We are looking at alternatives to incarceration, reducing recidivism, and safely reducing our overall population.
What are some of the difficulties your agency faces?
Overcrowding has been an issue for DOC for years. We used to be one of the states with the highest number of prisoners sent out of state. We don’t send any prisoners out of state anymore, unless there is a specific security reason for why they need to leave the state. We are over our design capacity, but not over our operating capacity. Inmates with mental health diagnoses are one of the major issues we have to address. Almost 70% of our prison population has addiction issues or mental health issues. We train our staff in addressing these issues. We also focus on our re-entry initiative and evidence-based practices so inmates, offenders, and youth have the best possible chance for success.
How is DOC dealing with the aging prison population?
We are still trying to determine how we will continue to adequately address the aging prison population as we move forward. We have many prisoners in their 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s. We are looking at the challenges that go along with this issue. We have certain institutions that can deal with different populations, but we’ll have to address this further as we move further down the road. Our average age right now is 37, that’s higher than previous years. The number of inmates serving 10+ years of confinement is increasing. We’re going to have to address geriatric care on many different levels.
What is the agency doing for employee retention?
The Department of Corrections was not immune from the increase number of retirements in the past two years. We have been given the authority to fill all of our open security positions. We recently graduated a class of over 50 Correctional Officers. We’re graduating another class of over 60 next week, and we’re getting ready to start a class of over 100. We’re doing recruitment regionally where possible. Our officers are doing a great job, and we’re working to take the pressure off of them by getting more positions filled faster without compromising quality of staff.
What new projects or programs is DOC looking at doing?
Alternatives to incarceration needs a lot of attention. I currently co-chair the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council with Attorney General Van Hollen and we’re looking at ways to safely reduce our population. We know that the GPS monitoring and DNA collections will also affect us down the road.
We’re focusing heavily on our staff right now. We have brought in Desert Waters counseling services to help assess the mental health and wellness of our staff. From there, we will be conducting training in dealing with stress and Corrections-related work concerns. We are setting up peer support team training and supervisor training to help to recognize stress related issues for our staff and get them the services they need to cope with their very difficult jobs.
I’m blessed to work for an absolutely great agency. I am honored to be here, and I am in awe every day by our staff and the incredible work they do to help keep Wisconsin safe.