Sept. 6 — STANLEY — Dave Zien said he heard from a lot of naysayers when he was part of early efforts to bring a jail to Chippewa County.
“When we started it, I was told it was an exercise in futility,” said Zien, who served as a senator. “I’m told it’s going to the southern part of the state.”
So Zien is excited to see Stanley Correctional Institution celebrate 20 years of operation. SCI is a medium-security facility for adult males with 1,559 inmates, along with 365 staff members, according to the Department of Corrections. There are currently 104 jobs available.
Construction began in 1998 and was a joint venture between Oklahoma-based Dominion Venture Group and the city of Stanley. In November 2001, the state purchased the prison from Dominion for $82 million, and the first 20 inmates arrived on September 4, 2002.
It will reach capacity next year.
SCI is located on 100 acres just south of Stanley and Highway 29. There are 45 acres on the perimeter of the facility and the outside perimeter is 1.1 miles.
“The number of people working there, with the fringe benefits they get, was huge,” Zien said. “It’s been a wonderful addition to the entire Chippewa Valley region.”
Zien still serves on a prison advisory board. He remembers one of the first meetings after introducing the prison to the community.
“We had over 100 people there and almost no one was against it,” Zien recalls.
Not only did the prison bring jobs to the area, but it meant that inmates sent to prisons in Tennessee and Oklahoma because there weren’t enough prison beds in the state returned to Wisconsin. At the time Stanley Correctional Facility opened in 2002, the state had 3,476 inmates housed in prisons outside of Wisconsin.
That was important for inmates to get the services they needed, he added.
“The inmates and their families are real people,” Zien said. “The Department of Corrections doesn’t do enough. They’ve just done a great job there. There are so many positives about Stanley Prison.”
David Jankoski was mayor of Stanley when the jail opened 20 years ago.
“Politics played a big part in this whole thing,” Jankoski recalls. “We gave as much encouragement as we could to get it into the public’s hands.”
Jankoski noted that new businesses have opened near the jail, such as a gas station/restaurant, and he knows many people in Stanley and surrounding communities who have found work there.
“Prison has proven to be a good thing. It proves those wrong who feared it would negatively impact Stanley,” Jankoski said. “The fears that people had about the safety of the community were never realized.”
State Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, was a Chippewa County employee at the time the jail opened its doors.
“Jokingly, indignantly, I say I was one of the first people to be in jail,” Bernier said. “What makes me proud of Stanley Prison and being in our area is that the people who work there do a great job. It was a bit rough at first, but once it started working, it was complete. good job. It is one of the best-run prisons in the state.”
Bernier said she has also attended several GED and high school graduation ceremonies at the prison. He praised the prison for having these programs to help inmates so they are ready to re-enter society after their release.
Bernier also praised a program the prison started where inmates take care of the dogs. He talked about hearing from an inmate who said he didn’t care about anyone but himself until caring for the dog changed his attitude toward others.
“It was a very moving testimony from someone who has been there for a long time,” he said. “The inmates were nicer to each other and to the staff.”
Charlie Walker, executive director of the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation, echoed the comments about the jail’s importance to eastern Chippewa County.
“Stanley Correctional has a huge economic impact,” Walker said. “It’s part of our differentiation.”
Walker said something that also can’t be measured is the volunteer work inmates do in the community.
Since it was built, critics have said the buildings were built for Oklahoma weather, not the harsh winters of Wisconsin.
The floors in the shower areas began to crack only a few years after the facility opened and were replaced. The state purchased a new computer system that controls all the locks in 2009 at a cost of $1.2 million. The state has also upgraded lighting and cameras to improve security.
In May 2006, the State Building Commission approved $4.99 million to address code problems. The heating and ventilation systems needed upgrades, and the jail also needed to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning more showers, ramps and wheelchair-accessible seating.
Former state Rep. Larry Ballow told the Leader-Telegram in 2008 that a “bad job” was done to build the jail and he expected repair costs to continue.
“Where the hell were the building inspectors?” Balow said then. “And where was the building commission when they decided to buy the jail? As it turns out, the state got a bad deal, and we’re going to be paying for it for a long, long time.”
Zien points to the fact that the jail was finished but sat vacant for more than two years before the state finally reached a deal to buy the jail. Zien said it wasn’t heated properly the first two years, leading to mold problems.
In the past year, the Leader-Telegram has received emails from family members who say the jail is still too cold in the winter months.
John Beard, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said many of the complaints he has read on social media have exaggerated the issues.
“Stanley has not been without heat for any period of days, to my knowledge,” Beard said earlier this year. “The only time the heat was turned off at the institution was on January 11, when two boilers failed overnight from Monday to Tuesday. Thanks to emergency repairs throughout Tuesday, the heat returned that evening. During that day’s repairs, the enclosure temps Units remained mostly stable but dropped into the 60’s in a few spots Relatedly there were some blown coils that needed to be repaired over the next few days Most recently there was an exhaust fan on a residential unit that had to to be repaired.”
Beard said that as of 2019, all perimeter cameras have been replaced, LED lighting has been upgraded and plans for a roof replacement are underway. The next big project at the prison is plans for a health services building. Beard said the funding request will go before the State Building Commission in December. If funding is approved, construction on this new center will begin in late spring or early summer.
Steven Avery and an “escape” from prison
Perhaps the most famous inmate to have been incarcerated at Stanley Correctional Institution is Steven Avery. He was released from prison in 2003 after serving 18 years for sexual assault. he was cleared of the charges and immediately released. He beamed as he spoke to local media on the morning of his release, surrounded by his family who turned up to take him home.
However, Avery would later be convicted of murdering photographer Teresa Halbach in the Green Bay area and is the subject of the hit Netflix series “Making a Murderer.”
In another infamous moment, two inmates literally walked out the front door in January 2010. One person had mailed fake documents to the prison that looked authentic. Jail staff processed the paperwork and the inmates were released. The men left the area and there were no problems with crime in the Chippewa Valley after they were released. Both prisoners were quickly apprehended
One of the inmates was Jimmy Baldwin, who was convicted of five felonies in a 1994 gang-related homicide in Milwaukee. Baldwin had more than 70 years on his prison sentence when he was released. He took a bus to Milwaukee, where he was later caught.
The other inmate released was Eddie Evans, whose extended supervision was changed from 13 years to one year. However, the forged documents were also sent to Louisiana, which was ordered to send Evans there to serve an eight-year prison sentence when his term in Wisconsin expired.
An audit in February 2010 caught the scheme as more forged documents were sent to the prison to free a third inmate identified as Henry Spencer.
DOC has changed the way it handles documents to make sure this type of forgery doesn’t happen again.
Jankoski, the former mayor, said while those two were able to get out the front door, he was never told of a jailbreak in his tenure.