Wisconsin prison vendors debate, 'monopoly' warnings

A plea on behalf of prisoners went before a panel of state senators in Madison Wednesday, Oct. 13. The 2-week-old state contract eliminates competition for thousands of prison products. One lawmaker issued a warning about what could happen if it's canceled.

And one lawmaker's warning about what could happen if they cancel it.

"We’re talking about a monopoly," said State Senator Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee). 

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Whether it's see-through electronics, clothing, crafts or Bibles, Wisconsin families have always had options for helping out a loved one in a Wisconsin state prison.

"You do not see what it takes to be a family member of an incarcerated human," said a citizen testifying during Thursday's hearing.

Clear electronics designed for prison inmates

That is, until about two weeks ago when California-based Union Supply became their only choice.

"The one-vendor system negates competition," said Jodi Weber.

Weber is president of JL Marcus, a Milwaukee business that has specialized in shipping pre-approved products to prisoners for more than 30 years. On Wednesday, she pleaded with a state Senate committee to restore its multi-vendor system.

"This bill protects a vulnerable group of people and fair market," said Weber.

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Union Supply CEO L.D. Hay said they won the contract fair and square.

"I am a little bit concerned and have questions about how a law can be passed that would basically end a ratified contract," said Hay.

State Senator Eric Wimberger (R-Green Bay) cautioned the bill could open the state up to a costly lawsuit.

"Then there’s the issue of damages, and that’s what it boils down to, "said Wimberger.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) prison

The bill's supporters say without competition, it is some of the state's most vulnerable citizens who will, literally, pay the price.

"Let the consumer choose the vendor. Not the DOC," said Weber. "It’s Economics 101. It’s Ethics 101."

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety did not vote on the prison vendors bill today.

That will happen in a separate meeting at a later date.

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