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Should prisons be places of retribution or rehabilitation?

Prisoners at the Waupun Correctional Institute have been kept in lockdown for months.
Chuck Quirmbach
Prisoners at the Waupun Correctional Institute have been kept in lockdown for months.

James Morgan is trying to be a better person today than he was yesterday.

He's a community organizer with the Madison-based organization Madison Organized in Strength, Equity and Solidarity, or MOSES. The group recently held a protest outside Waupun Correctional Institution to call attention to conditions at the prison. In less than a year, at least three people have died while imprisoned there, while the prison has been on lockdown since March — meaning people incarcerated there have remained in their cells for nearly 24 hours per day for eight months.

Morgan knows what lockdown conditions at Waupun are like. He spent 24 years in Wisconsin prisons, some of which at Waupun. He knows people who remain incarcerated at Waupun, and their reports of conditions there sounded familiar.

"When they started talking about there being bats and birds in the cell halls, feces and all these other things I was literally not surprised," he said. "Years ago I was in a lockdown in Waupun so I know what that process is like ... no one is seeing you, no one is hearing you."

Morgan used his time in prison to become a better person who was ready to contribute to society when he was let out. He said that while he was incarcerated, it was connection to other people — whether it was other inmates, teachers or people visiting him — that helped him believe he could change.

"That time of incarceration proved to be something that was life-changing for me," he said. "I began to meet some people while incarcerated ... who encouraged me to do some things that I thought I didn't have the capacity to do."

But this kind of connection to other humans does not exist at Waupun today, with prisoners forced to remain in their cells at nearly all hours of the day.

Morgan knows it can be tempting to want to simply punish someone convicted of a crime. Phrases like like "they should rot in prison," exist to express this sentiment. But Morgan says that serving a prison sentence is a punishment "in and of itself." Serving a prison sentence is inherently tied to feelings of loneliness, controlled movement and a lack of choice as life slips away.

Morgan believes that in order for people incarcerated in Wisconsin's prisons to leave better than when they began their sentence, they need a connection to other humans during their time in prison. Without this, there is little chance that someone in prison will leave a better person than when they began their sentence.

"Let's be true to what we say we're about. If we believe that other human beings have something redeemable about them, let's live up to that and see what happens."


Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.
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