Prisons, Rehabilitation, and Suburbanization: Building the Local Carceral State in Metropolitan Milwaukee, 1950-1958

Our fourth entrant into the Third Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest, Ian Toller-Clark, takes us back to the Midwest to examine the life cycle of the Wisconsin School for Boys. In the 1950s, the prison fell into aged disrepair at the same time that Milwaukee’s suburbs were in their infancy. Would it be rebuilt, and where? The decisions that resulted had a profound influence on the reshaping of the state’s prison system.

Russell G. Oswald, the new director of the Wisconsin Division of Corrections, had a problem. After 100 years of use the state’s one and only prison for young men between the ages of 12 and 21, known as the Wisconsin School for Boys, had fallen into severe disrepair. As early as 1947, a report noted that the institution “consisted of rooms which are little more than oversized corridors, leading to the wash-up rooms.”[1] Four years later, in 1951, Oswald testified to the Wisconsin State Legislature that the dilapidated and squalid conditions of the prison, located on the outskirts of the city of Waukesha, had continued to worsen. “The grade school has no toilet, bricks are falling from…the assembly building and roof leaks send streams of water down the stairways,” he told state lawmakers.[2] The report and Oswald’s testimony affirmed that the Wisconsin School for Boys was about to begin a new life cycle.

Politicians, newspaper editors, and policymakers agreed that something had to be done. Robert E. Lynch, a Democratic State Assemblyman from Green Bay, called on the state legislature to build a new prison with “modern dormitories, gymnasium, school buildings, and a chapel” on a lakeshore site in northern Wisconsin.[3] Lynch’s idea reflected a common belief in Wisconsin, and nation-wide, that prisoner rehabilitation required modern facilities and occurred best through manual labor in the outdoors.[4] Lynch’s call also signified the growing popularity of rehabilitation as a policy solution to crime, juvenile delinquency, and prisoner recidivism.[5] Meanwhile, the editors of the Milwaukee Journal observed that the Wisconsin School for Boys was “built in such a fashion that remodeling would be as fruitless as it would be expensive.” Moreover, according to them, “the city of Waukesha has crept up to the very edge of the institution.”[6] The editors’ op-ed elucidates that policymakers were concerned with more than just deteriorating buildings and ineffectual rehabilitation programs.

Officials at the Division of Corrections and the Department of Public Welfare also faced a rapidly changing metropolitan landscape. The desire of middle-class whites to move into new suburban communities on Milwaukee’s periphery brought capital and economic development to the surrounding suburbs.[7] These residents, some established but many of them first-time homeowners, pressured policymakers and politicians into constructing a local carceral state that respected their interests.[8] This new carceral geography also reproduced the racial and economic inequalities of the metropolis.[9] Ultimately, during the 1950s the life cycles of carceral institutions, postwar penology, and suburbanization collided and laid the foundation for Wisconsin’s modern carceral state.[10]

Two years after Oswald testified to state lawmakers, he and his staff presented the “Long Range Building Program,” which laid out their dramatic vision for the local carceral state. Their plan, contained in a memo to John Tramburg, Secretary of the Department of Public Welfare, called for six new correctional institutions, the addition at several prisons of solitary confinement cells (or “segregation units”), and two “pre-release” centers to handle parolees.[11]  In other words, they sought a “constellation” of smaller prisons that made “individualized treatment available to more people.”[12] Through this ambitious building program penal reformers argued the Division of Corrections could invent an innovative correctional system. Oswald explained, “these institutions would parallel insofar as possible the factors found in normal community living.” This new type of program, he claimed, “will encourage rather than discourage a healthy growth in the ability to accept at least the minimum standards of acceptable behavior and responsibility demanded by the community in which he [the prisoner] will live.” Moreover, Oswald did not intend for these new prisons to last 100 years but rather to have “a life span of 40 years or less.”[13] Through the construction of a local carceral state, with adaptive institutions that emphasized individualized care, staffers at the Division of Corrections hoped to “offer better protection to the public from the law offender,” Oswald wrote Tramburg.[14]

The Long Range Building Program also indicated the future of the Wisconsin School for Boys. Of the six newly proposed prisons, two would be specifically for juvenile and young-adult men. One would be an “open institution”, meaning it would have no perimeter fence, and be constructed at the Waukesha site, next to the Wisconsin School for Girls in Oregon or at “some other non-urban location.”[15] A year later, George Keith, the new Acting Director of the State Department of Public Welfare, clarified that the “open institution” could provide prisoners an “academic program with weekend vacations [at] home and [a] close relationship with community services.”[16] Policymakers intended for the other prison to care for young men considered to be “runaway risks”, “recidivists”, or “long-term cases, with deeply ingrained antisocial habits.”[17] The Long Range Building Program suggested that this institution, which policymakers called an “intermediate institution for male juvenile delinquents”, be built in a similarly rural space or within the Green Bay Reformatory.[18] In the meantime, as policymakers considered their options, residents of Waukesha clamored for change.

18114r
Detroit Photographic Co., Court house, Milwaukee, c. 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In the early 1950s, Waukesha residents inundated elected officials with letters expressing their frustration with the Wisconsin School for Boys. One resident, August Sigurdson, even wrote a letter to governor-elect Walter J. Kohler, Jr. In the letter, Sigurdson relayed a story that several escapees from the Wisconsin School for Boys had broken into his neighbor’s house and a local school. He added that just in the last year 187 inmates had escaped, according to the Waukesha Police Department. He complained that these escapes “should prove that some steps be taken, yet the panty-waists who are supposed to be responsible do nothing.” Sigurdson pleaded with Governor Kohler “to take some steps to protect the citizens of this state, particularly, the Waukesha area.”[19]  When Governor-elect Kohler did not reply for two months, Sigurdson sent a second letter. In it he expressed his conclusion that after Kohler’s silence and “vague replies” from his local representatives “at least some of our lawmakers believe [the Wisconsin School for Boys] to be a ‘hot potato.’” However, he added, “the only ones hold[ing] the ‘hot potato’ are the local citizenry of Waukesha County.”[20] While Sigurdson declined to outline his own solution, he demanded the new governor fix the problem.

Governor Kohler used his response to highlight his administration’s support of rehabilitation while deferring to his policymakers at the Department of Public Welfare and the Board of Public Welfare. For instance, Kohler told Sigurdson that the staff of the Wisconsin School for Boys were “constantly trying to improve on their methods of working with the boys.”[21] Kohler also championed rehabilitation. In answering a questionnaire sent by Tom Smith, editor of the Waukesha Daily Freeman, Kohler boasted about his role in getting the Board of Public Welfare and state legislature to agree on spending $500,000 to rebuild the Wisconsin School for Boys.[22] Despite support from Kohler and grassroots pressure from residents, however, policymakers continued to contemplate rebuilding the Wisconsin School for Boys in Waukesha.

The suburbanization of the city and county of Waukesha further pressured policymakers into making a final decision. Over the course of the 1950s, the city and county of Waukesha transformed from a mid-sized town surrounded by farmland to a suburban enclave of Milwaukee. According to the 1960 census the population of Waukesha grew by 41.3% to 30,004 residents.[23] The families that moved to this community were often white-collar, enjoying a median income of $6,779, nearly $1,500 over the national average.[24] Milwaukee industrialists also began to move to Waukesha in order to remain close to their employees and avoid Milwaukee County’s rising property taxes. These processes of white flight and industrial decentralization by divesting capital and people from the city to the suburbs restructured capital across the metropolitan landscape. The editors of the Milwaukee Journal made note of this ongoing transformation when recommending that the Division of Corrections move the Wisconsin School for Boys. The land on which the school is built has both industrial and residential value,” they wrote. Adding, “it should not be difficult to dispose of the property advantageously.” [25]

This new life cycle of capital certainly contributed to policymaker’s decision to abandon the Wisconsin School for Boys in Waukesha. As early as 1952, Tramburg recognized that the land underneath might be more valuable than the institution’s rehabilitation program. He told members of the State Board of Public Welfare that “the present site of the School for Boys is considered to be some of the most desirable property in the vicinity of Waukesha.” He went on to suggest, “this could be put up for sale, the proceeds of which could help defray construction costs”.[26] By 1954, officials at the Division of Corrections had formed a consensus around this idea. They did, however, seek to provide a rationale more in keeping with the proclaimed goals of rehabilitation. While noting that the Waukesha site had a monetary value of nearly one-million-dollars, they reasoned, “the present outmoded and inefficient physical plant could not be remodeled to serve” an inmate population of “recalcitrant, relatively less adjustable, escape risks.”[27] Regardless of the specific justification, the memo signified the decision of officials at the Division of Corrections to replace the Wisconsin School for Boys in Waukesha with two new prisons for young men located elsewhere in the state.

MilwaukeCountyCourthouseandJail
Carol M. Highsmith, The Milwaukee County Courthouse in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2016. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

White middle-class homeowners and suburbanization continued to exert power over policymakers as they embarked upon a new plan. For instance, when policymakers proposed building one of the prisons for young men next to the State Reformatory in Green Bay, the local residents of the white-collar suburb of Allouez rebelled. Through letter writing and attendance at town hall meetings these suburbanites waged a successful campaign to prevent construction of a new prison amidst their ranch homes. Under this pressure policymakers ultimately chose a site in the Kettle Moraine State Forest about twenty miles west of Sheboygan, Wisconsin.[28] The selection of a more rural and remote setting for the new prison rather than in a burgeoning suburb codifies how metropolitan transformations shaped the local carceral state.

The local carceral state also reproduced many of the racial and economic inequalities of the metropolitan landscape, just in different forms. For example, in 1952, Milwaukee’s Police Chief, John W. Polcyn, stating that 80% of all crime in the city occurred in the predominantly African American “inner core” and blaming the migration of African Americans from southern states, called on the Milwaukee Common Council to appropriate funds so he could add twelve or more policemen to the neighborhood.[29] Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s Deputy District Attorney, Joseph E. Tierney, testified to state lawmakers in 1951 that “narcotics peddlers have been enslaving more and more addicts to the dangerous heroin drug, mostly among Negroes in the 6th ward.”[30] Polcyn’s request and Tierney’s testimony signified how law enforcement officials continued to over-police, under-protect, and criminalize Milwaukee’s black community.[31] In addition, the state prison system began over-incarcerating Wisconsin’s African American population. According to a 1952 report from the Division of Corrections, the rate of incarceration per 10,000 was 58.5 for African Americans compared to just 5.6 for whites.[32] Over-policing, criminalization, and carceral inequalities continued to widen as Wisconsin suburbanites consolidated their political clout and pressed both Democratic and Republican politicians to embrace “law and order” and the carceral state.

TollerClark_HeadShotIan Toller-Clark is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research examines the carceral state, race, modern conservatism, postwar liberalism, and political realignment in the Global Midwest. He is currently writing a dissertation on the development of the carceral state in Wisconsin between 1950 and 2000. He is especially interested in how politicians, policymakers, white working- and middle-class Wisconsinites, and inmates utilized, organized around, and manipulated the carceral state to shape political culture and political economy. 


[1] Griffenhagen & Associates, “Wisconsin School for Boys” (Madison: Division of Departmental Research. State of Wisconsin., March 1947).

[2] Journal Madison Bureau, “Boys’ School Shift Opposed: Prefer Rebuilding,” Milwaukee Journal, March 1, 1951.

[3] Journal Madison Bureau.

[4] For more on the role of the outdoors in prisoner rehabilitation see Volker Janssen, “When the ‘Jungle’ Met the Forest: Public Work, Civil Defense, and Prison Camps in Postwar California,” Journal of American History 96, no. 3 (December 2009): 702–26.

[5] My understanding of rehabilitation is informed by Historian Melanie Newport’s definition of rehabilitation as “a historically contingent term that describes an intended outcome of jail detention that includes an individual being cured of or rejecting criminal pathologies, no recdivism after release, and moral improvement within the individual as determined by agents of the state.” Melanie D. Newport, “Jail America: The Reformist Origins of the Carceral State” (Ph.D., Temple University, 2016), see footnote 7, xiv.

[6] “A New State School for Boys,” Milwaukee Journal, June 26, 1950.

[7] John M. McCarthy, Making Milwaukee Mightier: Planning and the Politics of Growth, 1910-1960 (DeKalb, Ill: Northern Illinois University Press, 2009); Tula A. Connell, Conservative Counterrevolution: Challenging Liberalism in 1950s Milwaukee, The Working Class in American History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016).

[8] For other examples of white suburbanites political power see, Kevin Michael Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and The Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Lily Geismer, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); For more on how white suburbanites shaped the carceral state see, Matthew D. Lassiter, “Pushers, Victims, and the Lost Innocence of White Suburbia: California’s War on Narcotics during the 1950s,” Journal of Urban History 41, no. 5 (2015): 787–807.

[9] Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins Of The Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and The Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[10] For more on the carceral state see, Donna Murch, “The Many Meanings of Watts: Black Power, Wattstax, and the Carceral State,” OAH Magazine of History 26, no. 1 (2012): 37–40; Elizabeth Kai Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016); Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (New York: Pantheon Books, 2016); Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Heather Schoenfeld, Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[11] Russell G. Oswald, “Memo to John W. Tramburg, Subject: Division of Corrections: Immediate and Long Range Planning,” May 15, 1953, 2–3, Wisconsin. Division of Corrections: Division Subject File, Series 2377, Box 7, Folder 4: Long Range Building Program, 1953-1963, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[12] Oswald, 1; Division of Corrections, “Form B, Long-Range Buiding Program: Medium Security Prison Expasion (Wisconsin Correctional Institution),” October 1959, 2, Wisconsin. Division of Corrections: Division Subject File, Series 2377, Box 6, Folder 24: Institutions: Building Program, Approvals for Building, 1954-1962, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[13] Oswald, “Memo to John W. Tramburg, Subject: Division of Corrections: Immediate and Long Range Planning,” 4.

[14] Oswald, 1.

[15] Oswald, 2.

[16] “George M. Keith to State Board of Public Welfare,” June 1954, 6, Wisconsin. Division of Corrections: Division Subject File, Series 2377, Box 7, Folder 14: Institutions – Proposals and Justifications, 1952-1957, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[17] “George M. Keith to State Board of Public Welfare,” 1.

[18] Oswald, “Memo to John W. Tramburg, Subject: Division of Corrections: Immediate and Long Range Planning,” 3.

[19] “August Sigurdson to Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr.,” November 25, 1950, Walter Kohler Jr., Papers, Series 6, Box 119, Folder 6: Waukesha School for Boys, 1950-1953, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[20] “August Sigurdson to Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr.,” January 1, 1951, Walter Kohler Jr., Papers, Series 6, Box 119, Folder 6: Waukesha School for Boys, 1950-1953, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[21] “Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. to August Sigurdson,” January 16, 1951, Walter Kohler Jr., Papers, Series 6, Box 119, Folder 6: Waukesha School for Boys, 1950-1953, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[22] “Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. to Tom Smith,” May 5, 1951, Walter Kohler Jr., Papers, Series 6, Box 119, Folder 6: Waukesha School for Boys, 1950-1953, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[23] Bureau of the Census U.S. Department of Commerce, The Eighteenth Decennial Census of the United States, Census of Population: 1960, Volume I: Characteristics of the Population, Part 51, Wisconsin (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1963), 36.

[24] U.S. Department of Commerce, 164; U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, Income of Families and Persons in the United State: 1959, Current Population Reports: Consumer Income, Series P-60, No. 35 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961), 2, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/1961/demographics/p60-35.pdf.

[25] “A New State School for Boys.”

[26] “Memo from John W. Tramburg to Members of the State Board of Public Welfare,” December 5, 1951, Wisconsin. Division of Corrections: Division Subject File, Series 2377, Box 7, Folder 14: Institutions – Proposals and Justifications, 1952-1957, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[27] “Recommendations of Long Range Planning Committee for Division of Corrections, State Board of Public Welfare,” September 27, 1954, 3, 6 and, Wisconsin. Division of Corrections: Division Subject File, Series 2377, Box 7, Folder 6: Institutions – Major Building Program, 1953-1963, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[28] Charles W. Anderson, “The Relocation of the Wisconsin School for Boys: A Case Study in Public Administration” (Madison, Wisconsin: Bureau of Government: Research and Advisory Service, February 1961).

[29] “Crime Group to Be Called: Plan to Study Current ‘Wave’ and Reported Racial Unrest,” Milwaukee Journal, November 13, 1952.

[30] “Help Is Asked in Dope Fight: Penalties Here Should Be Stiffened, Plea to Legislature,” Milwaukee Journal, March 1, 1951.

[31] Simon Balto, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[32] “Criminal Offenders Placed Under the Supervision and Control of the Wisconsin Department of Public Welfare, Division of Corrections, during 1952” (State of Wisconsin, State Department of Public Welfare, Bureau of Research and Statistics, December 31, 1953), 1.

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