Questions brewing over COVID outbreaks in smaller DOC facilities

All eyes on larger prisons as smaller facilities experience their own surges

The Milwaukee Woman's Correctional Center (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
The Milwaukee Woman's Correctional Center (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“The people of Wisconsin are entitled to understand what additional burdens are being placed on our hospital systems,” said Chris Ott, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, “as a result of the failure of Governor Evers and Secretary Carr to take serious actions to reduce the populations in Wisconsin prisons and to release the elderly and medically vulnerable who are most at risk.”

Ott’s statement comes as the ACLU files records requests with the Department of Corrections (DOC), seeking documents which would indicate the number of people who have been hospitalized or died due to COVID-19 outbreaks in state prisons.

Gov. Tony Evers speaks with reporters in an online news conference (YouTube screen capture)

“The Wisconsin DOC reports on its website that 2,157 people held in its prisons have tested positive for COVID-19,” states an Oct. 14 ACLU press release. “With 1,000 currently active cases, more than 3,000 prisoners are currently being kept in either quarantine or isolation, and 530 DOC staff have tested positive. However, the DOC does not disclose how many of those cases have required hospitalization or have resulted in death.”

The ACLU is also pursuing documents that would reveal quarantining policies, the availability of masks for prisoners, when and how a person is tested for COVID-19 when they’re incarcerated, and whether guards and other prison employees are screened for the virus before entering the facilities.

Gov. Evers said during a COVID update briefing that the numbers coming from the outbreaks at other DOC facilities “are absolutely troubling.” He went on to add, “and I know the Department of Corrections has done a great job of when people are found to be COVID-19 positive, they get them separate from the general population, making sure that they’re there for as long as it takes for them to be shown to be negative on the COVID test so that they can re-enter the system. But the numbers are large. And it’s concerning.”

Right now, a lot of eyes are on the DOC’s larger facilities which are experiencing outbreaks. According to the department’s online dashboard monitoring COVID test results, 814 people incarcerated within the Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution (KMCI) have tested positive for COVID-19.

Some 224 of those are active positive cases, meaning those people are currently sick. Over 580 people incarcerated there have tested positive, but are no longer considered active cases. Another 78 staff have tested positive inside KMCI. Across all DOC facilities, 145 staff members remain listed as active cases of COVID-19. Staff information, however, is “self-reported,” according to the DOC page.

Large numbers of active positive cases have also been detected at the Racine Correctional Institution, Sturtevant Transitional Facility, the Dodge Correctional Facility and the Columbia Correctional Institution. But while all eyes are on some of these larger facilities, numbers have also quietly jumped in some smaller facilities.

A jump at the Milwaukee Women’s Correctional Center

Prior to Aug. 13, no positive cases of COVID-19 had been detected inside the Milwaukee Women’s Correctional Center, a 109-bed minimum-security facility, which sits on a residential street on Milwaukee’s mostly African American North Side. But then the number of positive COVID cases jumped to 22 in just one week on August 21, according to  the Department of Corrections (DOC) website.

The DOC states that its website is updated on a daily basis with current numbers. The page also has a date filter, which allows you to see what numbers were logged on which days. On Aug. 15 the website showed that there were zero positive tests detected at MWCC, and 108 tests had come back negative.

The Milwaukee Woman's Correctional Center. The facility sits within a mostly Black, low-income community. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
The Milwaukee Woman’s Correctional Center. The facility sits within a mostly Black, low-income community. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Five days later the website logged one more negative test, bringing the count to 109. The next day, three positive tests were documented on the website. By Aug. 27 the number of positive tests had risen to eight, and then to 19 the following day. By Sept. 9, some 22 women inside MWCC had tested positive for COVID-19, though only 11 of the cases remained active. That’s where the number of positive tests stands today.

The Wisconsin National Guard conducted mass tests at the facility in May and August. Four days later,  the number of cases detected among the incarcerated population spiked.

Because the infections appear to have originated with staff, it is possible that they carried the disease among different inmate populations. Two non-uniform MWCC staff members provide assistance at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution (TCI) in Fond du Lac once a week, and another doubles at the Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center (REECC) in Union Grove.

While 23 cases among staff have been detected by TCI, the number for incarcerated individuals at the facility is still at zero. A single person incarcerated within REECC has tested positive, while the virus has been detected in six staff members. While TCI has had over 1,200 tests done to date, according to the DOC COVID dashboard, 562 have been done at REECC. At MWCC, just 192 tests have been done. What’s more, while there are no active cases within the facility, the dashboard notes one active case has now left the facility.

The DOC was unable to reveal specific information about the person who tested positive and was then released, due to privacy concerns. However, a spokesperson did shed light on what happens if someone tests positive as they’re released.

“I assume, since they are out on supervision, they are given information on seeking medical care but are, ultimately, responsible for following up on that themselves.” The spokesperson added, “in general, that positive test would play a role in release planning. For instance, it would play a role in plans to safely move someone to any type of Department of Community Corrections housing or residential service, if they are not releasing to a family member.”

Life inside MWCC, and moving forward

As a minimum security facility, the women’s center offers a different sort of incarcerated environment from some other DOC compounds. Women are provided work-release, and there is programming meant to deal with trauma, stress, and their eventual return to normal life. Through the center’s Earned Release Program (ERP), incarcerated women have the opportunity to get out early. Nevertheless activists working to lower the prison population in Wisconsin — many of whom were formerly incarcerated — feel that the facility is not serving people well.

“It’s very stressful,” Ouida Lock, an activist and formerly incarcerated person, told Wisconsin Examiner about life on the inside. Although Lock was never held at MWCC, she’s made it a point to connect with women there after her own release back in 2011. “I have several friends, close friends, who not too long ago got released from the Women’s Center,” she said.“Women of color, they are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to decision making,” she added.

The Women’s Center sits in a low-income Black community, resting on a block with vacant houses. “Most people don’t even know what it is,” Lock said,  speaking of the people who live in the surrounding community. According to interactive maps created by Wisconsin Examiner to track drug overdose deaths, fatal overdoses occurred just a couple blocks from MWCC in both 2018 and 2019.

The Milwaukee Woman's Correctional Center (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
The Milwaukee Woman’s Correctional Center (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

“It’s been several times that I’ve been in the car with people and they do not even realize that’s a Wisconsin Department of Corrections facility,” said Lock. “They don’t even know what it is. And to put it in one of the most impoverished areas, that’s not surprising either. That’s what they do.”

In May, a report was released by the state exploring early release for incarcerated people due to the pandemic. As of Oct. 9, when the last weekly population report was released, some 20,961 people remained in DOC custody. That’s down from a little over 21,000 when the Examiner did a story on being incarcerated during the pandemic in late July.

Activists and advocates say change isn’t happening quickly enough. “My concern would be them not giving [the women] the best care possible,” said Lock. “As dangerous as the COVID has been, I don’t see corrections giving them the best care possible. That would be my concern. They just shut everything down until it passes. That’s the attitude. Just shut everything down, and pray to God that nobody die.”

Evers pointed out that incarcerated people don’t leave and go back to the general population. “We have to make sure that the people that work there, the people that are interacting with the inmates, are not bringing it back into the prison.” That dynamic changes in minimum security facilities like the Women’s Center, where people come and go, and at least one person with an active case has been released.

Editors note: This piece has been edited to include updated comment from the Department of Corrections (DOC) pertaining to the procedure for releasing and monitoring an incarcerated woman at MWCC who has tested positive for COVID-19.