“We lock up too many people for too long. It’s about time we change the dynamics. I apologize for that,” former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson (R) said of the prison system at the Marquette University Law School.
Thompson was Governor from 1987 to 2001, and just released his memoir “Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime.” As part of a conversation with Mike Gousha at the law school, Thompson advocated for turning prisons into vocational schools, both to tackle the state’s worker shortage and to help inmates find jobs when they re-enter society.
Though Thompson fell short of directly criticizing current Republican Governor Scott Walker, he did say he had a different perspective. He has spoken to Walker on the subject.
“I wouldn’t say he’s wrong. It’s just that I have matured over the years and I’ve seen the prison systems inside and out. … I’ve studied it. The way we warehouse prisoners right now is not the right way,” said Thompson. “Some people have to be in prison, there is no question about it. But we have too many people locked up that should be rehabilitated, retrained and allowed to get out and take a job. We need the workers.”
Thompson is far from alone. Republican views on the prison boom of Thompson’s era have evolved dramatically over the past two decades.
“There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” said Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), former Speaker of the House. “We can no longer afford business as usual with prisons. The criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”
Gingrich’s 2014 comment is fairly shocking considering the role he had in the prison boom of the 1990s. Twenty years earlier, the 1994 “Contract with America” that Gingrich spearheaded included the “Taking Back Our Streets Act” which encouraged new prison construction and curtailing parole. He opined in the New York Times about the terrible idea of “good behavior” parole and called for all criminals to serve “real time”.
A conservative criminal justice reform organization, Right on Crime, advocates for a transparent and responsive criminal justice system that promotes prisoner behavioral reform and not the self-perpetuation of the prison-industrial complex. Gingrich is one of a long list of signatories to those principles that were instrumental in the creation of the prison-industrial complex in the first place.
But in Wisconsin, the current governor has taken efforts to help perpetuate the cycle that fuels the prison-industrial complex. Walker ended early-release programs aimed at reforming prisoners and criticized supporters of those programs.
Walker has never visited a prison in his tenure as governor, and said he saw “no value” in doing so.
“We pass all these laws that you can’t apply to this job or that job or that job because you’ve got a criminal record,” said Thompson. “So we freeze them out of a lot of jobs, and we tell them ‘don’t come back [to prison].’ ”
Thompson has also written op-eds advocating for this kind of reform.
“Looking back, I regret not spending more time considering, ‘What does tomorrow look like for that parolee, and can we work together to help provide the necessary tools to reap a new opportunity?’ ” he wrote.
Between Walker and Thompson is a fight at the heart of the Republican party — to expand or reform a prison system that incarcerates 2.3 million people. To put that in perspective, if all incarcerated Americans lived in one city, that would be the fourth-largest in the United States.
“Today, 22 percent of Wisconsin adults have criminal records,” Thompson wrote. “I think it’s time for the Legislature to take a hard look at the 702 job-related consequences of committing a crime.”
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.