Incarcerated in the pandemic

People in Wisconsin’s prison system share their perspective from quarantine

Leon Elijah Prioleau (Photo provided by Forum For Understanding Prisons)
Leon Elijah Prioleau (Photo provided by Forum For Understanding Prisons)

Update: On Monday, the Department of Corrections (DOC) announced it had “completed comprehensive testing of persons in our care and staff members at 37 institutions,” according to spokesman John Beard. “Total tests administered is now above 24,500, and active cases among persons in our care is currently at nine, and the positive test rate for persons in our care was at 1.2% as of yesterday morning.” Beard adds that DOC, the Department of Health Services and the Wisconsin National Guard are beginning a second round of testing for staff this week.

With rates of COVID-19 infection continuing to rise across America, so, too, do the anxieties of people incarcerated within crowded facilities. In Wisconsin, 21,330 people were under the custody of the Department of Corrections (DOC), as of July 10. Though changes have been instituted, and the population has declined due to some changes made during the pandemic, activists fear incarcerated residents remain at greater risk of COVID-19 than many on the outside realize.

According to the DOC’s COVID update page, over 24,000 tests have been conducted on people under the department’s custody so far. Only 296 of those tests have come back positive. Nevertheless, 853 incarcerated people are currently in quarantine, and another 13 are listed as in “isolation.” About 285 people, according to the DOC, have recovered after receiving a positive test. Currently, according to a July 20 press release from DOC, there are nine active positive cases, with two people who’ve tested positive having been released.

Anna Neal, a DOC spokeswoman, explained the difference between quarantine and isolation to Wisconsin Examiner. “Isolation separates sick people experiencing symptoms related to a contagious disease from people who are not sick,” says Neal. “Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were potentially or directly exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.” Whereas quarantine focuses on those who may have been just exposed to COVID-19, isolation separates people who are actively displaying symptoms.

Unlike the incarcerated population, staff and correctional officers come and go from DOC buildings every day. Staff information regarding COVID-19 is self-reported, DOC’s web page notes. Still, 95 staff members across 18 adult institutions, the Division of Community Corrections, and the Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills juvenile facilities, have tested positive for the virus. Of those cases, 12 are active. The rest of the staff members are listed as having recovered.

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The Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI) and the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) have the highest numbers of positive tests among staff at 22 and 15 respectively. WCI also dwarfs all other DOC institutions in the number of positive cases detected among its total population — 230 incarcerated individuals. Advocates and the families of those in DOC’s care raise questions about whether DOC’s levels of testing are sufficient.

“What is being done to prioritize repeated testing within the DOC?” asks Alan Schultz, a prison abolition activist in Milwaukee. “If there is not repeated testing occurring then there is not an ability to track the virus.” Schultz wonders if the varied rates of testing may result in a distorted public perception of the true rates of infection.

Alan Schultz (left) stands with other activists during a protest on the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Alan Schultz (far right) stands with other activists during a protest at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The department says it is working to expand the number of tests. “DOC continues to test persons in our care who display symptoms consistent with the COVID-19 virus and further plans to work with the Department of Health Services and the Wisconsin National Guard to test all staff and persons in our care in the near future,” says Neal. “Mass testing has actually been underway for a couple of weeks.”

On May 29, the DOC released a press update on the status of mass COVID testing at Waupun. By then, half of the tests conducted on staff and those incarcerated within WCI had been completed. “These results further support the decision to conduct mass testing, as the majority of these individuals were asymptomatic. While the increase in testing may increase the number of confirmed positive cases within our agency, just as it does in the community, it now enables us to identify those asymptomatic carriers and properly isolate those individuals, which is crucial to reducing spread,” the press release stated.

Waupun has had the most positive tests among incarcerated people and was also one of the first prisons with a reported breakout of COVID-19. While it has conducted more than 1,200 tests, that number is outpaced by a few other facilities. Dodge County, with over 2,300 negative tests, has just 11 positives. Oshkosh Correctional Institution also has slightly over 2,000 negative tests, with nine positive tests to date.

The number of tests conducted at DOC facilities range from a single test to a few hundred to a over 2,000. Some prisons with high testing numbers have yet to document a positive COVID case among their incarcerated populations. Stanley Correctional Institution, for example, has had over 1,500 negative tests without a single detected positive.

MSDF, where 15 staff have contracted the virus, has had over 1,000 negative tests among people incarcerated there and just three positives. MSDF particularly is notorious for overcrowding and poor conditions reported by people detained there. While not technically a prison, MSDF is under DOC authority and confines people who violate conditions of their parole or are being transferred from other overcrowded facilities. The facility’s low number of positive COVID tests puzzles activists.

Neal told Wisconsin Examiner, “mass testing of persons in our care and staff was conducted by the National Guard at MSDF from May 19-21. Each facility, including MSDF, continues to do DOC-administered COVID-19 tests for those with suspected cases, as well as during transfers between facilities and prior to release. These tests are ongoing and are administered as needed.”

Word from the inside

Life for an incarcerated Wisconsinite might seem far away to people on the outside coping with the daily reality of the pandemic. But the same anxieties about the virus that an ordinary citizen might experience are only compounded when you’re locked up. It’s now common knowledge that people with pre-existing or immune-compromising health conditions, the elderly and people who have regular close contact with others are at the greatest risks of spreading the virus, and experiencing its worst outcomes.

A report released by the state in May examined the issue of early release of at-risk incarcerated residents. It noted that “confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff and inmates at several facilities have raised the question of whether the state should release certain high-risk individuals, either pre-trial or post-sentencing. Several other states — including California and Ohio — have taken steps in this direction.”

That same month, Wisconsin Examiner was contacted by Damani Nantambu, who’s incarcerated at Columbia Correctional Institution (CCI). Nantambu and others within DOC custody have been sharing their perspectives on what life is like locked up during a pandemic.

Tai Renfrow during a protest. (Photo provided by Tai Renfrow)
Tai Renfrow during a protest. (Photo provided by Tai Renfrow)

Organizations like the Forum For Understanding Prisons (FFUP) are in communication with numerous incarcerated people across DOC’s network of facilities. The organization has been pushing Gov. Tony Evers and state officials to initiate compassionate releases for those incarcerated residents most at risk from  COVID-19.

Namtambu described how it has become more difficult to see doctors for non-COVID issues. “Security dictates who can be seen, and who can’t be seen,” said Namtambu, who also noticed a higher number of fellow incarcerated people being escorted to “the hole,” or segregation. “They’re still walking guys back and forth from the hole every day,” said Namtambu. “A lot of these cats are teenagers and so, by these guys being cooped up in the cell [and] they don’t have nothing to do, they’ve been acting out. Because they have no outlet for their frustrations.”

Numerous changes to DOC operations, both inside and outside its facilities, have been made over the past few months. Movement of incarcerated people has been limited, some programming has been canceled or modified, there have been restrictions to recreation and large group dining has been eliminated. While these are necessary steps to slow the virus’ spread, the measures have also contributed to agitation and tension within the facilities.

“They send them to the hole with a quickness,” said Namtambu. “They ain’t been showing them no mercy.” Namtambu said he’d heard from staff members that more people were going into quarantine and isolation related to COVID. At Columbia Correctional Institution, as of July 14, four staff and three incarcerated people have tested positive. Over 738 negative tests have been reported for the facility’s incarcerated population.

Quarantined within the DOC

“You have to have symptoms to get tested,” explained L. Elijah Prioleau, who is incarcerated at the Waupun institution. “When you’ve got symptoms, they put you in quarantine, they put you in isolation,” he told Wisconsin Examiner on July 7. “If you have symptoms and you tell a guard, and they call to test you … the nurse comes, and places you on isolation. Then, depending on your symptoms, they’ll then tell the nurse practitioner and she would determine if you get the coronavirus test.”

Prioleau was recently released from segregation after a conflict with his cellmate. He’s been in regular contact with FFUP for months, and is a close friend of FFUP member Tai Renfrow, who Prioleau considers a sister. Shortly before being placed in segregation, Prioleau was sending updates to FFUP detailing his concerns over COVID at Waupun. On June 26, he began sending FFUP messages through Corrlinks, an email service for incarcerated people monitored by the DOC, in which Prioleau confessed that he, too, was beginning to experience symptoms.

He recalls being approached for a test back in May, when the National Guard was in the process of testing staff and incarcerated people at Waupun. Prioleau recalls the stoic professionalism exhibited by the personnel, who would go on to test thousands of incarcerated people across the state. By then, the National Guard had tested over 7,000 incarcerated Wisconsinites across the Badger State.

Once Prioleau began experiencing symptoms, he says that two COVID-19 tests were done on him. “I had these symptoms, I started off really bad,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “By the time I came over here [to quarantine] there was probably a good five or six inmates over here that were sick. A few days after I came on quarantine I started having symptoms. I had a sore throat, runny nose, I had a really bad headache that lasted like six days. Had difficulty breathing, like my chest was tight.”

The 40-year-old says that despite his symptoms the fact that he didn’t have a fever made some of the nurses skeptical that COVID-19 was responsible. Prioleau has multiple pre-existing medical conditions, including one which weakens his immune system, as well as long-term issues with asthma. Regardless, once moved to quarantine, Prioleau was told he couldn’t leave until he was completely symptom-free for up to three days.

Although some of his symptoms have subsided, Prioleau is still experiencing a few which could be related to his other conditions. While in quarantine, Prioleau says he’s also been unable to shower. “I asked the nurse, ‘Do I have to lie to get out of quarantine?’ and she just smiled at me. So I’ve been in here since June 15, and they have not let me out yet … I’m just sitting here waiting, I guess. Until they decide to cut me loose.”

Prioleau says quarantine adds to the sense of confinement he already feels prison. “When you’re in quarantine you’re in a cell by yourself,” he explains. In quarantine, pleasantries like a shower or fresh change of clothes can be few and far between. You don’t leave the cell. You do not. Leave. The cell, period.” emphasizes Prioleau. “When the nurses come see you, they don’t open the door. The only time they open the door is when there’s a coronavirus test. When the nurse comes to see you, they open up the food trap. And you got to stick your face down there to check your temperature, or they check your pulse.”

Although the DOC differentiates quarantine from punitive segregation, Prioleau doesn’t see much difference from where he sits. On the DOC’s COVID web page, the department lays out how the effort to slow the virus’ spread has complicated the way staff interact with incarcerated people.

“As a result, we are unable to facilitate wellness checks via our healthcare staff or respond to requests for medical updates at this time,” a section of the FAQ page reads. “However, DOC staff continue to monitor the health and safety of all persons in our care. As we continue to work through managing COVID-19 and as this issue evolves quickly, we will have security staff follow-up with the person in our care whose loved one is reaching out and encourage them to contact their loved ones to notify them of their status.”

Surviving in silence, to make it home

Prioleau, who has spent some 16 years of his life incarcerated will get out in June 2023. Getting out, even for good behavior and with a proper safety net built up, has been complicated by the rise of COVID-19. While Milwaukee continues to see one of the nation’s longest-running active Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest movements of 2020, incarcerated people wait for their freedom and an opportunity to be recognized by those on the outside.

Renfrow and one of her partners at FFUP, Ben Turk, have long considered finding ways to increase awareness of the plights of incarcerated people to the local BLM movement. A recent occupation of the County Jail, after notable community organizers were arrested, shows Renfrow the potential for that branch of activism.

Even further, if more incarcerated people were released to help de-crowd prisons, those people could bring their experience, knowledge, and motivation to the streets. That potential can be seen through the work of groups like EXPO (Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing). “That movement would be so much different than it is right now if [incarcerated people] were out right now, and in this fight,” Renfrow told Wisconsin Examiner.

This article has been updated with more up to date numbers on COVID testing within the DOC.