‘I apologize:’ Tommy Thompson says state locks people up for too long; wants to turn prisons into vocational schools

MILWAUKEE -- Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson is doing something you rarely see politicians do: apologize.

Thompson, the governor from 1987 to 2001, says he regrets his role in building prisons while in office. His solution: turn some prisons into vocational schools to train inmates for jobs and an early release from incarceration.

Thompson, who is promoting a new memoir, says he got caught up in the "hysteria" that tougher prison sentences for more offenders was the right approach.

"We lock up too many people for too long, and it's about time we change the dynamics, and I want to be on the -- I apologize for that. I want to be on the front end of changing that," said Thompson.

Former Governor Tommy Thompson

During an event at Marquette University Law School, Thompson said Wisconsin should provide more drug and alcohol treatment and get companies like Foxconn Technology Group to sponsor inmates in a workforce training program.

Thompson said he was so passionate about the issue that he would give up his successful business career if he could make the policy changes.

"If I could put all that together and if I could walk away (from my businesses) and be governor for six weeks and change the prisons, I would do it," he said.

Thompson's view that Wisconsin locks up too many people puts him at odds with current Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Walker has chided some of his Democratic rivals for aiming to reduce the state's prison population by half.

"I think this is dangerous. I think what they're proposing is dangerously liberal," Walker said in August during a news conference in which he stood next to three violent offenders' mugshots.

Former Governor Tommy Thompson

Thompson said he and Walker have talked about the issue.

"I wouldn't say he's wrong. I have matured over the years, and I've seen the prison system inside and out," said Thompson.

Asked about Thompson's comments, Walker pointed to his own support of training programs for inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

"We think we can greatly increase that. Tommy talked about an entire facility being a vocational and technical education component. That's something we're very seriously looking at," Walker said.

'Lack of civility' in politics

Thompson is dismayed by what he sees as a growing negativity in politics.

"We have become so polarized in America that we don’t listen," he said. "We talk and we don’t listen. We think we’re right, and everybody else is wrong.”

Asked if he was talking about the current governor's race -- in which Walker's campaign is running a graphic TV ad that refers to a sex act -- Thompson declined to say.

"I don’t want to criticize either Tony or Scott. They’ve got to run their own campaigns. They want to get elected," Thompson said. "After the election, let’s talk. I think we need to develop more civility -- in the Legislature, in Congress, in the president, in governors."

Walker said this week that the graphic TV ad was pointing out Evers' record (the ad criticizes Evers for not revoking the license of a teacher who viewed pornography at school). Evers has promised to counterpunch when attacked.

Thompson for president

Thompson said he should've run for president in 1996, when he was in his third term as governor. Bob Dole ended up winning the GOP nomination.

Thompson said he felt it was his "moment" and pinned the decision not to run on his political advisors.

"They didn’t want to do it, and so they sort of talked me out of it and said 'It’s not your time," Thompson said. "Well, when I did run in 2008 it certainly wasn’t my time and I had no money."

Thompson launched a short-lived bid in 2007, dropping out of the race months before the Iowa caucuses.

His memoir, Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime, is available now.