At least 40 communities in the state known as America's Dairyland figure that a new prison in town could be one of the best things since sliced cheese. Milwaukee isn't one of them, because the penitentiary proposed by Gov. Anthony S. Earl would be next door to Milwaukee County Stadium, home of the city's professional baseball team, the Brewers.
For the past two seasons, the "Brew Crew" has kept frequent company in the standings with the Cleveland Indians, perennial cellar-dwellers of the American League's Eastern Division. Attendance at home games this year is below last year's deflated levels.
The Brewers' owners contend that if the $50.5 million, 450-bed facility is built as planned just beyond the parking lot behind the left-field bleachers, the crowds could shrink even more.
"You're running a risk that, if there's any kind of emergency at the prison during a baseball game, you're going to have a real mess," said Brewers lawyer David E. Beckwith. The franchise is already "fragile," Beckwith said, because of the relatively small size of its broadcast market and competition from the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins.
Brewers play-by-play radio announcer Bob ("Oh, I must be in the front rooowww!") Uecker, of beer-commercial fame, joked, "I guess they'd have to tell the prisoners they couldn't escape on game day."
Earl, meanwhile, has his own explanation for crowd shrinkage. "The reason the Brewers' attendance went down last year had a lot more to do with their proximity to Cleveland in the standings than it had to do with the proximity of a potential prison site to the [left]-field wall," the governor said.
Earl said his primary intentions are to improve the state's corrections policies and eliminate overcrowding in the 4,780-prisoner system.
About 58 percent of Wisconsin's prisoners come from the heavily populated and industrialized southeastern corner of the state around Milwaukee, including 40 percent from the city. All of the state's largest penitentiaries, however, are 75 to 110 miles away, most in rural outposts like Waupun, Fox Lake and Dodge.
A Milwaukee site would be more convenient for family visits and closer to large job-training, educational and employment facilities, Earl contends. A prison would generate 250 permanent jobs for the city and make it easier to hire minority guards and administrators for the disproportionately minority prison population.
"By all that's right and holy, it makes sense to have an institution somewhere in southeastern Wisconsin," Earl said. "Almost everyone agrees with that except the mayor."
Milwaukee Mayor Henry W. Maier is all for a southeastern site, as long as it's not in his city. With 30 percent of the state's impoverished residents, Milwaukee has more than its share of social service institutions, Maier argues. What's more, Earl's projections of overcrowding are off the mark, he says.
Prisons close to home have been more susceptible to drug trafficking and threats against families, he said, citing Lorton Reformatory, the District of Columbia's penitentiary in suburban Virginia.
Moreover, he said, Earl and the "great liberals" in his "clam-and-chowder club up there" in Madison, the state capital, have no evidence that the correctional theories underpinning their argument will reduce recidivism. If the state is serious about providing jobs, Maier said, "they could send us 350 sanitation workers, and that would be better."
Much of the feud over the proposed medium- and maximum-security prison is simply the latest spat between Maier, the dean of America's mayors, and Earl, who has offended "Henry," as the governor sometimes calls the mayor, several times (over state revenue sharing, over a disconnected hot line between their offices) since taking over the statehouse in 1983.
Cooler heads may prevail. The Brewers have won an injunction against further progress on the facility, for which money has been appropriated but no ground broken, on the contention that the state plan did not evaluate the prison's potential impact on the team, the stadium and those who depend on both for a living. Unless that ruling is overturned by a higher court, construction cannot proceed until those questions are answered.
Meanwhile, Earl has asked a blue-ribbon panel of Milwaukee citizens to consider alternate southeastern sites, and 40 proposals have been submitted. The panel's recommendations are due soon.
In the County Stadium parking lot across the road from the site, steak and bratwurst are a more burning issue than the proposed penitentiary for the fans who have come from miles away for tailgate parties long before the opening pitch.
Up in the cheap seats, the $5.50-a-plop general admission deck from which the prison, if built, could be seen between pitches, the groan over a possible prison could not compete on a recent Sunday afternoon with the bayings of "Coooop!" "Coooop!" whenever the Brewers' mighty first baseman, Cecil Cooper, was at bat.
Paul Gaus, a Milwaukee accountant perched in the right-field deck, said a prison next door to the ballpark would be a sad prospect -- for the prisoners.
"Those poor guys would have to watch the Brewers play," Gaus lamented. That's solitary confinement this year."