Are state prison inmates unbalancing Wisconsin politics? The 22,000 inmates in Wisconsin prisons are counted locally for census purposes and state Representative Fred Kessler, a Milwaukee Democrat, believes that gives some parts of the state an unfair political advantage.
“Assembly District 53 has nearly ten percent of its total population as persons who are incarcerated in the prison at Waupan or the prison at Oshkosh,” said Kessler. But state Representative Joan Ballweg says the political impact of counting prisoners is minimal in most of the state. “I think this is maybe more of a local issue, as to how mayors and city councils work some of their particular districts,” said Ballweg.
Kessler proposes amending the state constitution, so that inmates are not counted in prison, or in the communities where they lived before being sentenced to serve time.
Peter Wagner with the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative testified in favor of the amendment. “Prisons are industries of import in the state of Wisconsin,” said Wagner. “The question is whether Wisconsin should allow what is in essence the prison industry, extra political clout because of what that industry is.”
Are inmates residents in the communities where prisons are located? Kessler, who chairs the Assembly Committee on State Affairs and Homeland Security, and Balweg, a member of the committee, disagreed on that point. “They’re using local services for health care, for county services, EMS services, roads,” said the Markesan Republican. “All of those folks are being served because they’re living there.” Kessler disagreed. “I don’t see the local impact,” he said. “In fact there’s a tremendous local benefit,” because prisons provide jobs.
The constitutional amendment would have to pass two consecutive sessions of the legislature and a statewide voter referendum.