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Green Bay Correctional Institution: The most dangerous place in Wisconsin?

Posted at 9:00 AM, Nov 20, 2019

GREEN BAY (NBC 26) — At any given time, the Green Bay Correctional Institution houses roughly 1,000 inmates.

Around 90-percent of them are violent criminals. It's the job of correctional officers to keep order inside the prison walls. Those with experience say it's a job very few people can do.

"Your first week as a rookie you go in and you're told within 5 years you'll either be divorced, an alcoholic, or both," said Denis O'Neill, a former officer who spent 25 years at Green Bay Correctional. "I've seen people walk into the door and walk out. Rookies last maybe a week and gone, and it happens so often."

O'Neil made it more than two decades. He says a 2015 attack by an inmate, James Luke, forced him to retire. According to a criminal complaint, Luke went after a prison psychologist. O’Neill responded and ‘pinned Luke against the wall.’

“He turned on me and we had quite a fight," O'Neill said.

The criminal complaint said O’Neill ended up with three cuts on his head and a concussion.

"That was quite a day," he said.

What happened that day is not all that uncommon. A public records request returned more than 100 reports of inmates assaulting Green Bay Correctional staff in a three year period after O'Neill left. In one case two inmates punched and injured an officer, and a criminal complaint showed they did it to try and move to a different prison. In another case, an inmate got into an altercation with officers, tried to run away, and threw an ice bucket at a guard that caused a concussion. In sentencing, a judge added a year to the inmate’s prison time and said officers have "a tough job in the prison. a really tough job."

There were hundreds of more assaults ranging from inmates spitting on guards to other violent incidents.

NBC 26 reached out to the Department of Corrections for an interview about the violence inside the prison. We were told a new warden was in place and didn’t want to comment on the past. We were also unable to get inside for a first-hand look.

The DOC did send a statement after this story first appeared online. A spokesperson wrote in part, "While there are isolated incidents in which our staff are injured on the job, the Department of Corrections (DOC) believes there are many steps our staff and our leadership are taking to continue to make it a safe, secure, and cohesive place for individuals to receive the care and programming they need to better themselves."

The DOC also reported that attempted and completed assaults are down. In 2015, there were 74 reports. That number has dropped every year and is currently 27 in 2019. The Department of Corrections believes increasing staffing levels have helped the number go down.

There was money in the state budget to begin the funding process to buy land and replace Green Bay Correctional Institution. Governor Evers vetoed it and wrote, "I object to building a new maximum security correctional facility as we continue to explore needed criminal justice reform in Wisconsin."

Marianne Boyle Rohloff and a team of advocates are set to launch a campaign to close GBCI. They don’t want another prison built in its place.

"The design is antiquated, for one, and it is one of the oldest prisons in Wisconsin," Boyle Rohloff said. "If the prison would close, I think another facility could be repurposed and if we draw down our numbers through treatment alternatives there would be less medium, minimum security inmates and ability to re-purpose the larger system."

Another option is renovation. It could cost hundreds of millions of dollars at a 120-year old prison.

Whatever the state does, it will take some time. Inside GBCI, a century old facility ages even more, the crimes continue, and one of the most dangerous places in Wisconsin carries on.

"Anyone is capable of assault, anyone is capable of stirring up trouble," O'Neill said.