Stanley’s Ghost haunts Green Bay prison plan


Rep. David Steffen is spending part of his time fighting the “ghost of Stanley” as he pitches a bill that would let a private company build a new prison in the Green Bay area that the state would then lease and operate.

Steffen, R-Green Bay, says he often gets questions about how his bill is different than the process Wisconsin took with the Stanley Correctional Institution. The state had to pump at least $5 million into fixes to the Stanley prison because the private company that built it didn’t meet state standards.

An Oklahoma prison developer started building Stanley, located east of Chippewa Falls, in 1998 without the state’s express permission -- and lawmakers approved a roughly $80 million purchase of the prison in 2001 under former Gov. Scott McCallum. Lawmakers then passed language that would prevent private developers from building a prison without state approval again, and state officials began realizing the magnitude of the fixes in the coming months.

Steffen, first elected in 2014, said questions about Stanley pop up from more seasoned lawmakers and Capitol observers, but he tells them his bill is “completely different.”

“That ghost still roams these halls for those who have been around here for 20-plus years,” Steffen told in August. “For people who are perhaps a little newer to the environment, have a little more private sector experience, they look at this as a viable option for the future.”

Among the items that got fixed at Stanley were insulation, heating and cooling systems, concrete walkways, stairs and electrical wiring, according to a 2006 request from the Department of Corrections to the state Building Commission. The state spent roughly $7.5 million on maintenance fixes at Stanley between 2003 and 2006, Building Commission records show, though that could include regular upgrades not tied to code violations at Stanley.

Under Steffen’s bill, the state would partner with a private company in building the prison, which would have to meet state specifications. The company would own the prison and lease it to the state. Steffen said the state would “have a lot of flexibility” in determining how long the lease would be and could purchase the facility later if it wants to.

The prison that Steffen is proposing would replace the 119-year-old Green Bay Correctional Institution, which Steffen said is necessary because GBCI has more inmates than it’s supposed to and needs more than $100 million in upgrades that get more costly each year. Steffen’s bill would require the state to sell the GBCI property.

Steffen said GBCI is located in what’s become “prime real estate” in Allouez, but the village currently gets no tax benefits from the property because it’s owned by the state.

The new prison Steffen envisions would be operated by state employees, but the property would be owned by a private company – which would then pay taxes to local governments based on the property value.

“This creates an actual incentive [for communities] to host a new facility,” he said.

But Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Mt. Horeb, says lawmakers should instead focus on alternative methods of re-integrating those who committed non-violent crimes.

Pope, first elected in 2002, reminded lawmakers at a committee hearing in May of the state’s experience with the privately built Stanley prison.

She said in an interview it is not at all an “apples to apples” comparison, but she wanted those who are newer to the Legislature to be aware of that controversy.

“Private involvement in Wisconsin’s prison system has not proved to be a successful venture in the past. ... If they’re going to do private involvement, they better know what the consequences might mean,” she said.

Pope, for example, takes issue with circumventing the usual way of handling state construction projects and having a private company make money off the state when Wisconsin leases or buys the prison.

“The private entity is not going to come in here and out of the goodness of their heart build a prison for Wisconsin,” she said. “They plan on making some money.”

Answered Steffen: “If you go into any type of transaction [and say], ‘If the other party makes any money off this, it’s a bad deal,’ well, good luck having any construction project or any project whatsoever be successful.’’

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