COVID-19 forcing Wisconsin’s incarceration system to adapt

Gov. Evers halts prison admissions as activists organize for incarcerated Wisconsinites

Interior cell blocks at Waupun prison in 1893. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)
Interior cell blocks at Waupun prison in 1893. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

The Badger State is notorious for its high incarceration rate. So the well-being of Wisconsin’s incarcerated population remains one of the biggest looming challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. News of the infection of a Department of Corrections (DOC) employee at the Waupun Correctional Institution further raise the stakes.

On March 21, Evers ordered a halt of all prison admissions in the state. A spokeswoman described the development as, “part of our efforts to stop the spread of the virus and help keep staff and the people in the state’s care safe.”

The order does not end the problem the pandemic poses within the incarcerated population, however, and some sheriffs objected that they had not been consulted on the plan, which could cause a backlog in county jails.

According to a DOC weekly population inventory, there are 23,167 incarcerated adults in Wisconsin and 136 in youth custody. Pile staff numbers on top of that, and you’re looking at a large potentially high-transmission environment for the virus that causes COVID-19. March 18, an email was sent out to DOC and Waupun correctional staff regarding a staff member who tested positive. “Our priority is the safety of everyone and we will continue to be proactive in our efforts as we deal with this ongoing issue,” wrote Waupun warden Brian Foster. “As always, be vigilant in your duties, be safe in all that you do, take care of yourselves and those around you.”

The DOC says it’s been implementing measures over the last several weeks to minimize the risk to people housed within facilities. “As a result of these actions, we feel equipped to deal with this situation,” DOC spokeswoman Anna Neal tells Wisconsin Examiner. “Each division maintains detailed pandemic plans that outline protocols and isolation procedures on what to do if someone was infected. Upon confirmation of a positive case, all potentially exposed staff were notified, and all adults in custody that were directly exposed were quarantined.” Due to privacy concerns, details about the staff member and his or her work site remain confidential.

According to the Department of Health Services (DHS) the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state stands at 381.

Several criminal justice reform groups are pushing to elevate the voices of incarcerated residents. Among them is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin, which held a virtual town hall on the evening of March 19.

Despite social isolation being a key to mitigating the virus’ spread, it’s a strategy Dr. Monica Vasudev, points out is not possible for incarcerated people. “We know that close contact increases the risk of catching the virus,” Vasudev says. “Older inmates are at risk.”

Dr. Monica Vasudev, MD
Dr. Monica Vasudev, MD

Vasudev outlines a complicated medical landscape for incarcerated Wisconsinites, who have trouble obtaining medications and are sometimes not diagnosed with an underlying health condition upon entering the correctional system.

Even soap is a limited resource for incarcerated people. Vasudev urges that Wisconsin’s incarcerated population be given easier access to soap, adequate sinks to wash, and proper instruction about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Protocols for newly arrived inmates may also have to shift across facilities under the DOC’s oversight. “If people are newly incarcerated, maybe they need to be quarantined for 14 days because we have what’s now known as ‘community spread,’” says Vasudev. “People who work in the jails, they also need to be told to stay home if they have a cold.”

“The criminal legal system makes it essentially impossible to do the things that doctors say you need to do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from COVID-19,” says Dylan Hayre, Justice Division Campaign Strategist with the ACLU. “It makes social distancing impossible. It makes hygiene inaccessible. It makes medical care wholly inadequate or also inaccessible. It just creates barriers and impediments all along the way for people who are trying to get help in the midst of this pandemic.”

Dylan Hayre, national campaign director with the ACLU
Dylan Hayre, national campaign director with the ACLU

Much like paid sick leave and healthcare access, the pandemic is laying bare the inequities of the incarceration system. Cases of medical shortfalls and malpractice can be found within jails and prisons nationwide, including Wisconsin. One of the most striking incidents occurred in 2016, when 38-year-old Terrill Thomas was deprived of water for a week in jail and died. Three Milwaukee jail staffers were convicted of felony charges in connection with the death, and Thomas’ family was awarded a $6.7 million settlement. Thomas’ case is just one of numerous deaths that have occurred in the Milwaukee County jail since 2000.

“I should note that these barriers aren’t new now that we have COVID-19,” says Hayre. “These are the barriers that have existed within the criminal legal system for centuries. They’re just now being re-evaluated under the crisis in a way that they haven’t been before.”

Moving forward, the ACLU is pushing several demands to help ensure the safety of incarcerated people. These include a moratorium on arrests for low-level offenses to help stem the tide of new people into the system. “Prosecutors need to stop low-level charges,” says Hayre, “they need to dismiss as many charges as possible, they need to get people out if they are being brought in under arrest.”

Like the rest of society, Wisconsin’s correctional institutions may need to change very rapidly. For example, while the average person may be buying—or stockpiling—hand sanitizer, incarcerated people aren’t allowed sanitizers, which contain alcohol. Incarcerated residents also pay for soap, which they can only afford if  they have someone putting money on their account, or if they work a low-wage, prison-provided job for “pennies on the dollar,” as Hayre puts it. “It can take up to a week’s worth of incarcerated labor to pay for one bar of soap.” Those are just a few of the problems incarcerated Wisconsinites are facing as the pandemic now creeps within their walls.

Emilio de Torre, Community Engagement Director for ACLU of Wisconsin
Emilio de Torre, Community Engagement Director for ACLU of Wisconsin

Emilio de Torre, community engagement director with Wisconsin’s ACLU, encourages organizers, activists, and concerned residents to contact their local sheriffs and district attorneys about this issue. Things like recommending that police issue tickets for low-level offenses rather than conduct arrests, reduce bail, eliminate overcrowding, and provide access to supplies for incarcerated people can all help.

“Nothing is going to resonate more with your local sheriffs, or your police chiefs, or your DAs than you calling them, than you emailing them and reaching out directly,” says de Torre. ACLU is also distributing a petition to urge Gov. Tony Evers to eliminate the practice of crimeless revocation, “which is the number-one driver to our prison system,” says de Torre, referring to those who will be re-incarcerated for breaking a rule of supervision rather than committing a new crime.

In Milwaukee County, many of the people who break these rules may find themselves within the notoriously overcrowded Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF). Molly Collins, advocacy director with the ACLU of Wisconsin notes that in MSDF, “there are three people in a cell. And there’s no space there. Those are conditions where if this virus gets in those folks are going to be harmed.”

Molly Collins, Advocacy Director for ACLU of Wisconsin
Molly Collins, Advocacy Director for ACLU of Wisconsin

In a press briefing on the pandemic on March 20, Evers said the DOC has implemented “significant changes,” to its operations across all institutions. Evers emphasized the priority of “making sure the people that we’re responsible for are safe and secure and continuing to receive services.”

At Waupun, the governor said contact tracing is being done to quarantine any possible exposures. Though Evers is confident in the operations of the DOC to deal with the virus, he admitted, “obviously this is very stressful for the Department of Corrections, the people that work there, and the people that we are responsible for.”

Chris Ott, executive director of Wisconsin’s ACLU tells Wisconsin Examiner, “We believe that the administration is taking the grave risk that COVID-19 poses to incarcerated individuals seriously and is actively looking into how to stem the outbreak.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin released a letter to Gov. Evers and corrections officials in his administration calling on the governor to grant commutations to anyone identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as particularly vulnerable and whose sentence would end within the next two years.

“There are a lot of priorities right now,” says Collins, but the most vulnerable in society, she adds  “are the ones that we need to be thinking about.”