Major COVID spike in Wisconsin prisons raises questions on distancing, masks

Advocate says the answer is releasing more inmates

Banner: Prison sentence = death sentence #FreetheVulnerable
Human Rights Advocates, Hunger Strikers: “Free People Now!” Photo by Joe Piette via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Philadelphia, PA (June 7, 2020)

There were 903 prisoners isolated with COVID-19 in state Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities on Tuesday and a total of 2,068 in quarantine, representing a huge spike in cases.

Recent outbreaks include Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution with 431 active cases Tuesday, and 337 at Oshkosh. There have been roughly 2,000 positive tests throughout the pandemic, and almost half of those are currently active.

In the last two weeks, the numbers have tripled.

This has presented a huge challenge for the DOC, which must find places to isolate or quarantine people in its care, as well as providing masks to prevent the spread. And the logistics of having many people in tightly confined spaces is dangerous for the health of both inmates and correctional workers.

The most pressing concern is that “there is clearly no way to isolate folks at Kettle Moraine and Oshkosh because of the sheer number of men who are ill,” says Gretchen Schuldt, executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative. “This is entirely predictable and a massive failure by DOC and the state.”

headshot Gretchen Schuldt
Gretchen Schuldt, executive director, Wisconsin Justice Initiative (via

Schuldt has a number of concerns surrounding people who are incarcerated in close quarters in a pandemic, as does DOC. Recently there were conflicting reports on whether inmates in Wisconsin prisons have enough masks to protect them from COVID-19 even if one gets lost or torn. And what is done when one of them has symptoms or a positive test — especially as cases are rising in these facilities.

The question of how to hold prisoners who have tested positive or been exposed to the virus is far from straightforward. 

“Each facility is different in where they put people,” says DOC spokesman John Beard. “They’re not all cookie cutter facilities. Some have separate units that they can put people in if they have that space, but not all do. There have been some of the facilities where people have been isolated and quarantined in their cells.”

Incarcerated in a pandemic

With masks, each incarcerated individual is given three washable masks. If they want or need more, they can purchase them for $2.50 with their own money or have family or friends buy masks on their behalf.

In her job, Schuldt hears from people behind bars with some regularity. She will not identify her sources, or their institutions, to protect them. But she says one concern she’s heard about is the availability of masks. 

“We here…have been informed that…we will be required to purchase our own face masks, that the DOC will no longer provide them and certainly not for free. We will now be required to purchase a single mask for $2.50 (an allegedly one size fits all). Nothing in this policy makes any provision, that I am aware of, for the many prisoners who are indigent and unable to purchase these masks (of whom there are many),” she writes, quoting an inmate who contacted her, in one of her posts in WJI’s blog.

Asked about this, the DOC clarifies that it provides three masks without a charge, but purchases after that are $2.50.

“The DOC provides three cloth face coverings – double-ply cotton – to every person in our care for free,” says Beard. “The agency will soon start letting persons in our care buy additional masks, if they want more than the three free ones. Their loved ones will also be able to purchase additional ones for them.”

Schuldt says that does not alleviate her concerns even though the cost may sound low. That’s not cheap, she says, for someone with a low-paying prison job or for inmates who are paying victim restitution or court surcharges. “The cost is really punitive for people who are making pennies on the hour or a half-buck an hour,” says Schuldt. “There are people in prison, plenty of them who don’t have that kind of money. And don’t have family support.”

Hands grasping bars in jail or prison
Getty Images

Relocation, release and COVID

Even before the beginning of the pandemic there were over-overcrowded institutions. “Some of them are very old, with poor ventilation,” says Schuldt. “Most have situations where it’s absolutely impossible for people not to socialize [because] running 700 people, one at a time, in the cafeteria, it just can’t be done.” She faults Gov. Tony Evers and his administration for not releasing a larger number of prisoners at the beginning of the pandemic, calling it “a huge failure.”

While mask availability and adherence pose an immediate danger, what to do with inmates who test positive, show symptoms or have been exposed is an even more daunting issue. 

Another inmate told the Wisconsin Justice Initiative that his institution is not removing incarcerated people who test positive for coronavirus from the general population, and that a nurse told him not to worry about being tested because staff were not moving people who tested positive anyway.

On the other hand, if people are isolated in solitary confinement when they test positive, that is good for the health of other inmates and staff and helps keep the virus in check, but it can also be a deterrent for inmates causing them to hide symptoms to avoid testing.

The only solution short of releasing people is to create infirmaries, which would likely be expensive. Schuldt filed an open records request months ago for quarantine and isolation practices and says she has not received a response. She understands it’s tough right now with the workload and expresses understanding of how hard it must be on DOC and the staff, as the pool of employees is also dealing with ramifications of the pandemic, the virus and the need to quarantine.

Beard gets asked a lot about how each correctional facility is handling COVID-positive inmates, but the answer varies quite a bit depending on the facility.
“It’s hard to answer that question generally, because each facility handles it differently,” says Beard. “But Waupun is not Green Bay is not Dodge is not Stanley is not New Lisbon. So some people were quarantined in their actual cells if they didn’t have their place to put them. So maybe that’s what [the inmates] are saying. When they say they are not moving and in with the general population — their movement was restricted. It wasn’t like they were walking around the place like they normally would in common areas.”

Each facility has its own plan. And, he adds, certain tests are mandatory. “We test at intake, transfer and release. And then also when people are showing symptoms of coronavirus, or flu or whatever,” says Beard When an outbreak happens, they move the National Guard that are testing in other locations to the affected facility.

“At that point, the facility has to decide the best way to quarantine and isolate the people,” says Beard. “So they quarantine and isolate the best way they can. You’re in a house of detention. You’re isolated. To be isolated further with a lot of restrictive movement isn’t fun for people in our care there or for staff. It’s not ideal but it keeps the numbers from spreading further in a facility where it’s difficult to limit the spread of a virus.”

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The DOC was running through potential scenarios at the Emergency Operations Center when it opened in the spring, and realized quickly that it would be different in every location, and transferring inmates to put those who’d tested positive together would be virtually impossible from an operations standpoint. 

“I think it’s been a combination for us of good prudent decision making and good fortune,” says Beard, that numbers of positive cases did not rise more quickly. “You know when one person has been exposed and then is exposing themselves to multiple people not knowing they’re sick and you go from zero to 12 or 15 pretty quickly.”

That is what is happening now. The DOC is transparent about its records by facility and on each case of a positive test, negative test and numbers who are in quarantine on any given day on its website.

Green Bay, where there had been a spike just weeks ago, currently has no active cases, with 300 that have recovered. And 26 out of 37 facilities have no cases, according to the Tuesday update.

As Schuldt sees it, something has to give. And that, she asserts, is the governor releasing more people in minimum security who are out in the community working anyway — perhaps on electronic monitoring.

“Then you can move people out of medium security into minimum security and ease some of the overcrowding and give some space in prison so people have a better chance of maintaining some sort of social distancing,” she adds. “There’s not just a bunch of extra rooms to put people. It kind of makes logical sense that they might be keeping them in with general population because they don’t have anything else to do with them.”

At publication time, Evers’ office had not responded to questions on inmates released this year and whether releasing more inmates is something he would consider.

Like everything else with coronavirus, many aspects are learn-as-you-go.

“Each facility plans for where it will put people and how it will handle situations,” says Beard. “But, as we’ve come to realize in life with this virus, the plan sometimes has to be altered.”


Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.