The Center’s guiding values: Protect the vulnerable. Expose wrongdoing. Seek solutions to problems.
Here are some ways our work is having real impact:
Cruel and Unusual?
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism identified 40 allegations of physical or psychological abuse by correctional officers against inmates in Waupun Correctional Institution’s segregation unit since 2011.
The Center faced enormous obstacles in documenting these allegations at the state prison. The series by reporter Bill Lueders drew on the skills of four additional colleagues at the Center, including our legal counsel. It was based on copies of letters and internal complaints sent to public officials, a state prisoner rights advocate and a private attorney, as well as letters from prisoners and interviews with former inmates. Additional material came from filings in federal lawsuits and state court proceedings. The investigation took five months and cost $40,000 — a tenth of the Center’s entire budget and resources that few Wisconsin news organizations would be able to muster.
And it is having an impact. The series prompted an interfaith advocacy group to ask Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to investigate the abuse allegations. Saying that the series proved the state Department of Corrections “routinely engages in torture,” the group requested an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice because the DOC “cannot be asked to investigate itself.” Six Democratic legislators wrote to Walker to demand action. We reported in December that the DOC is revising its disciplinary rules, including the use of segregation. We continue to investigate the DOC’s use of solitary confinement and treatment of prisoners. In early 2015, we sued the agency after it failed to respond to requests for public records. In April, the DOC turned over some of the records and we reported that a prison guard had been fired for harassing inmates. The suit has been settled, the DOC has turned over records, and our coverage is continuing.
Wisconsin’s sand rush
Our reporting on frac sand mining in Wisconsin has created a rush of its own. Other news organizations locally and nationally jumped in to begin telling the story of this side effect of the controversial practice of “fracking.” We continue to receive inquiries from governmental agency officials, mining companies and others using the comprehensive spreadsheet and map of existing and potential mining areas that we produced. The state DNR also has begun to study the effects of sand mining on Wisconsin residents. And the state Department of Transportation has consulted our reporting in its effort to quantify the effects of the burgeoning sand rush on Wisconsin’s highways and railroads. Our frac sand project page remains a trusted source of information and in April 2015, we produced an innovative, entertaining video that uses grains of sand to summarize key issues in the nation’s No. 1 frac sand mining state.
Lost signals, disconnected lives
In response to our report on Wisconsin’s GPS tracking of offenders, the head of the Assembly Committee on Corrections called a legislative hearing to question the Department of Corrections. At the hearing, another legislator read aloud portions of the Center’s story when questioning the DOC’s director of sex offender programs. Citing the Center’s reporting as a factor, the state Legislature’s budget committee scaled back a planned expansion of the GPS monitoring program for offenders — and called for a study of the system’s reliability.
Suffering in Silence
Even before it was published, the Center’s story on campus sexual assaults prompted the University of Wisconsin-Madison dean of students to vow to improve the treatment of students who report abuse. University officials also created a webpage to improve public access to sexual assault data that previously were available only through public records requests.
A group of University of Madison-Wisconsin students, led by Center intern Amy Karon, exposed misleading nutritional claims by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s $30 million a year pro-dairy campaign. The state milk board removed misleading dairy weight loss claims from its website the day our story was published.
A Tribal Tragedy
Our story on the tragedy of high suicide rates among Native Americans in Wisconsin brought nationwide attention to the issue, and a former Menominee Reservation resident donated $5,000 to a local Boys & Girls Club.
A computer-aided analysis of a sample of 50,000 e-mails sent to Gov. Scott Walker found Walker accurately said most were supportive – but a third of supporters were from other states. We discovered one came from an Indiana GOP activist and prosecutor who urged a “false flag” operation to fake a physical attack on the governor and discredit pro-union protesters.The analysis of Walker emails was circulated worldwide. And the follow-up led to the immediate resignation of the Indiana prosecutor.
Supreme Court altercation
A collaborative investigation revealed allegations of a physical altercation between two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices in a nationally significant collective bargaining case. Separate legal and ethics investigations were launched to examine the Supreme Court incident, calls grew to replace judicial elections with merit selection, and a justice faced three ethics charges. Justice David Prosser maintains he’s innocent.