Activists collect stories from people incarcerated during COVID-19

By: - April 21, 2020 7:00 am
Barbwire on top of a fence outside a prison or jail

Prison barbwire fencing. Credit: Alex Potemkin, Getty Images.

People incarcerated within Wisconsin’s prisons and jails aren’t counting on officials to respond to the threat of COVID-19 outbreaks inside those facilities. Activists and prison-reform groups are in regular contact with currently incarcerated people, who are proactively relaying their stories of their lives and worries about being locked up during a pandemic.

Amplifying their voices has now become a key strategy for those hoping to protect the most vulnerable in prisons from the virus.

“We’re getting communications across the system,” explains Ben Turk, an incarceration-reform activist. “Different people have different concerns, in different places. You know, the folks in Oshkosh and Waupun and Columbia are concerned about the outbreak. The people in more of the minimum [security] joints are concerned about the lack of prevention.”

Ben Turk, anti-incarceration activist (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Ben Turk, anti-incarceration activist (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Turk feels that Wisconsin’s incarcerated population isn’t overlooked in these times, so much as it is “intentionally neglected and ignored.” Since the pandemic began, the Department of Corrections (DOC) has maintained that it’s prepared for the potential spread of COVID-19 within it’s facilities.

Only state-run facilities are under the department’s purview, whereas other facilities such as county jails have more localized control. The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, for instance, reported on April 3 that a nurse who was under contract with the county’s medical provider, working within the jail, tested positive for COVID-19.

According to a press release, the nurse had symptoms on April 2 and didn’t come into work. She had last worked in the jail on March 31 when, according to the sheriff’s office, she was wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during her interactions with staff, and detained persons. At least two sheriff’s office staff have since tested positive, a deputy in the Court Services Division, and a store clerk in the Milwaukee County Jail. On April 19, the sheriff’s office disclosed that the jail’s contracted medical provider reported that one person detained in the jail and another released on Sunday tested positive for the virus. Meanwhile, 27 incarcerated people and four staff within the House Of Corrections also tested positive.

A page maintained by the state DOC provides updates to the number of positive test results among both incarcerated people and DOC employees. As of the time of this publication, it cites four positive tests for employees in the Columbia Correctional Institution (CCI), six in the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), one in the Waupun Correctional Institution, and another in the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center — a total of 11 employees who have tested positive. Another three DOC staff have tested positive in the department’s Community Corrections arm in Milwaukee. However, the data for staff is self-reported, and the availability of tests has been limited in Wisconsin throughout the  pandemic.

The DOC details on a separate web page that 105 tests have been conducted among incarcerated people so far, with 10 coming back positive and six still pending. While no staff have tested positive in the Oshkosh Correctional Institution, there have been eight people incarcerated there who have tested positive. Another two people incarcerated in the Columbia Correctional Institution have tested positive. Tests have been conducted across 24 DOC facilities. Anna Neal, a DOC spokeswoman, told Wisconsin Examiner, “We are unable to speculate as to how the individuals at OSCI may have contracted the virus,” despite no staff having tested positive.

Activists react to the numbers

To activists and organizers, these numbers don’t make sense. During an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin virtual town hall, held on April 15 as part of the group’s Smart Justice campaign, organizers openly questioned the accuracy of the testing numbers. Alan Schultz, a formerly incarcerated person turned activist,  stated he’s been paying close attention to the DOC’s web pages on a daily basis.

“Just the last seven days, eight days, it’s been really messed up numbers on what’s been happening,” says Schultz. Between April 8-14, Schultz noticed the numbers seem to go up to 96, and dipped down to 91 before returning to a higher number. Looking at the numbers appearing to shift around before his eyes, Schultz concedes that he doesn’t know if it’s simply a web site error.

Nevertheless, it muddies the picture for members of the public who may be concerned about the safety of their incarcerated loved ones. Turk also sent an open letter to DOC Secretary Kevin Carr, the staff of Gov. Tony Evers and others detailing his concerns for the status of testing, among other issues.

“It seems that either the information posting to the testing dashboard must have been inaccurate, or people were moved around,” Turk wrote in the letter. For example, Turk noted that on April 10 the number of total tests at CCI was six, with two positives, one negative, and three others pending. On April 14, however, just three total tests were listed with two positive results, one negative, and no pending cases. He also highlights that “the DOC has been testing people at only almost half the rate that Wisconsin is testing people statewide.” This, he says, raises questions in his mind: “Who determines how many tests the DOC gets? How do you decide who gets tested? Why are some of the facilities with the most exposure, MSDF, CCI, WCI, receiving fewer tests than other facilities?”

The ACLU of Wisconsin has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of two incarcerated individuals with pre-existing conditions, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19. Filed with the state Supreme Court April 10, it calls for the immediate release of elderly and vulnerable people from state prisons to protect them from the virus.

Getting Word From Inside

Advocates have received a variety of tips from incarcerated people, ranging from how quarantine is being handled to concerns about possible exposures to COVID-19. On April 12, FFUP received a communication from a man incarcerated in CCI, who noticed staff walking around with masks who had never worn them before. The man asked the employees who were wearing the masks, a guard and nurse, they stated they’d been possibly exposed to the virus. Though anyone exposed to COVID-19 is recommended to self-quarantine for up to 14 days, the staff hadn’t because they hadn’t shown symptoms, the source told FFUP.

An employee guidance page is maintained by the Department of Administration Division of Personnel Management, answering numerous questions including what to do if you’re exposed to COVID-19, but don’t show symptoms.

“Depending on the circumstances presented by the particular respiratory virus,” reads the page, “employees who have been directly exposed to the virus through actions such as caring for an ill family member may choose to remain at home for a period to ensure they do not carry the virus into the workplace.” Documentation of an exposure may be required, and employees choosing to remain at home will be required to use available leave. The page does, however, note in bold lettering that employees who are sick or suspect that they have the virus, “will self-quarantine for 14 days and may not return to work until the quarantine has concluded and the employee is no longer considered infectious.”

Turk says he’s been informed that “people in maximum level facilities are deterred from reporting symptoms or requesting tests. If you ask for a test, you’re moved to quarantine, which is functionally similar to disciplinary segregation.” Once that happens, “you lose your property, your phone privileges, etc. They don’t give you a last phone call to tell your family you’re going to be cut off from them for a week.”

Neal explained, “Ill patients are medically isolated from the rest of the population. Similarly, exposed but asymptomatic individuals are quarantined away from our most highly vulnerable patients. DOC is not placing all of our vulnerable people into the same housing units to mitigate a circumstance in which there was an outbreak of COVID-19 in one unit.”

Ultimately, when you’re incarcerated, the guards truly are the gatekeepers to what happens to you, Melissa Ludin, board president with EXPO (Ex-incarcerated People Organizing), explained during the ACLU virtual town hall. “The correctional officer is the go-to person if you need to talk to a medical person that’s a nurse, a nurse practitioner, a CNA. And many times they often say, ‘No, maybe you’re okay. Or, ‘No, you have to drink water,’ Or ‘No, why don’t you just lay down?’”

Melissa Ludin, state board member at Ex-incarceraed Peopl Organizing (EXPO) (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Melissa Ludin, state board member at Ex-incarceraed People Organizing (EXPO) (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Ludin, who has experienced incarceration, recounts having seen a woman who had chest pains while she was in the system. “The officer had told her to go lay down in her cell, and later she died,” recalled Ludin. “When I was incarcerated, it was a means of survival,” she said. “If we didn’t take care of each other in that facility, nobody else really was.”

This power relationship between the incarcerated individual and correctional staff also puts those who want to speak out at risk, according to advocates. Tai Renfrow, an organizer with FFUP, told Wisconsin Examiner that retaliation against incarcerated people speaking out has “already happened.” Renfrow says individuals who have provided COVID-related information from inside DOC facilities have faced various forms of retaliation. Such as “restricting and removing people from contact lists.”

Turk also noted that DOC staff “take somebody who is a contact of ours, put them into proximity to somebody who is unstable and potentially dangerous. And then if there’s a conflict, and our contact defends himself, then they have the pretext to put that contact in the hole. We’ve had a couple stories of that happening.” These particular concerns were also included in Turks’ open letter.

Neal says that the DOC maintains procedures, “for persons in our care to have the ability to file a complaint regarding staff misconduct.” Beyond that, she was unable to comment on allegations of retaliation against incarcerated people speaking out without more case-specific information. As of the time of this writing, Turk says his open letter to DOC and state officials remains unanswered.

Getting People Out

Evers has implemented a number of measures directed at DOC institutions during the pandemic. Among them was an order to halt prison admissions statewide, and a reduction in crimeless revocations.

According to weekly population reports, between November 2019 and April 2020, DOC’s incarcerated population went down from 23,349 to 22,750. The youth population decreased from 139 incarcerated youth to 114 over the same period. The total number for those on probation and parole, however, increased from 66,523 to 66,725 during that same period..

Turk says FFUP’s demands are straightforward: , “Release as many people as you can,” he tells Wisconsin Examiner. Prisoners who are older, have served long sentences and have health complications should most likely take priority, he asserts. “There’s a lot of short time and revocations,” he notes, “almost half the people going into the prison system are going in on crimeless revocation, and those are people who should be easy to release as well.” Activists are also calling on the DOC to be as transparent and accurate as possible when relaying COVID-related information to the public.

Activists and organizers encourage the public to not only push for the release of their loved ones, but also to remain in contact with them. Frank Davis, an organizer with EXPO and a formerly incarcerated man, urges family members to support their loved ones in prison.

“A lot of times there’s this propensity for individuals to not either want to believe them, to say, ‘no that’s not happening.’ Or to want to put the DOC at this level saying, ‘they’re professional, this is what they’re doing, and I can’t believe that they’re doing that,” says Davis. “But the reality is that there’s some messed up things happening behind these walls, and behind these fences. And it is necessary that one, family members out here support their loved ones inside. And then, get their stories.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin, FFUP and other organizations and activists are encouraging incarcerated people, or their loved ones, to reach out with information. They also have a petition drive asking Evers to prevent a prison outbreak and protect incarcerated Wisconsinites from COVID-19, which followed a March 18 letter from Executive Director Chris Ott to the governor and other stakeholders.

“We need the support, we need it,” stresses Davis. “Keep standing up, keep fighting, and keep speaking.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets. He was also featured in the 2018 documentary The Chase Key, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club Great Waters Group 2021 Environmental Hero of the Year award. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council also awarded Holmes its 2021-2022 Media Openness Award for using the open records laws for investigative journalism. Holmes was also a finalist in the 2021 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards alongside the rest of the Wisconsin Examiner's staff. The Silver, or second place, award for Best Online Coverage of News was awarded to Holmes and his colleague Henry Redman for an investigative series into how police responded to the civil unrest and protests in Kenosha during 2020. Holmes was also awarded the Press Club's Silver (second-place) award for Public Service Journalism for articles focusing on police surveillance in Wisconsin.