Locked up during the Waupun COVID surge

“It’s a bad time to be in prison.”

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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)

Both inside and outside state prisons, the numbers for COVID-19 infection continue to rise across Wisconsin. Over 312,000 people have tested positive for the virus statewide and 2,637 Badger residents have died after contracting the virus. Over 6,977 of those positive tests, and 10 of those deaths, have occurred among people incarcerated within Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities. Some 2,063 of those cases are listed as active positives, the largest single day spike in Badger State prisons to date.

“It’s bad, man,” 36-year-old Bradley Sewell, who’s incarcerated at the Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI), told Wisconsin Examiner in a DOC-monitored phone call. Since around March, recreational activities and other programs have been restricted in prisons to help prevent the virus’ spread. Particularly since the numbers began to spike within facilities like WCI, incarcerated people say they feel they have little else to do other than sit around and wait for their turn to receive a positive test.

Sewell got a positive test result just days before reaching out to Wisconsin Examiner. “I already knew something was wrong, though,” said Sewell, “because I was feeling very, very ill. Very, very ill, the usual I couldn’t taste, couldn’t smell. Sweating profusely, very, very, very cold and hot at the same time. Body aches, muscle aches, all of that. And the treatment I received was a bottle of aspirin. A small bottle of 500mg aspirin…and it doesn’t help. It don’t help at all.”

Hands grasping bars in jail or prison
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As more people become infected, Sewell has also noticed that people who have tested positive sometimes remain in their cells alongside people who hadn’t yet tested positive. “In the very beginning they were trying to do quarantine,” said Sewell. “In the very beginning, if you were exhibiting symptoms, you were taken to what’s called the north cell hall. The north cell hall is typically the cell hall for receiving, for guys who’re first coming into the prison. So if you were exhibiting symptoms, or you tested positive, they would take you over there. But since there’s so many cases in the prison now, they’re just leaving you in your cell. Some guys have their own cell but most guys, there’s two to a cell.”

A DOC spokesperson informed Wisconsin Examiner that as of Friday, roughly 60 people were in isolation and quarantined at WCI. “The National Guard was at Waupun for more testing of staff and persons in our care last week,” the spokesperson, John Beard said. The rate of infection from COVID-19 began spiking at WCI in late October.

From Aug. 1-Oct. 1, the number of positive tests among incarcerated people at WCI remained at 228. On Oct.7 however, according to the DOC’s online COVID dashboard, the number rose slightly to 232. By Oct. 15 the number rose to 257, with 29 people who were actively exhibiting symptoms. By Oct. 21, 289 people had tested positive at WCI, and then 411 on Oct. 23. Some 685 people had tested positive at WCI by Nov. 13, with 59 active cases at the facility, and 1 person who tested positive and was released. Today, Nov. 17, the number of positive cases hovers at around 54 people.

Yellow line: Total number of tests. Red line: negative tests, Blue line: positive tests, Green line: active positives (Chart created by Isiah Holmes) 

At the same time, WCI’s overall incarcerated population remained stubbornly high. While designed for a capacity of 882 people, WCI housed 1,185 incarcerated people in August, according to DOC population updates. As October rolled around, the number dropped slightly to 1,179 people. Between October and November, 10 more people were released from the facility, bringing the total to 25 people released over the last three months.

In May, the state of Wisconsin released a report which explored the need and possibility of early release due to the pandemic. The report found that the incarcerated population is especially vulnerable to COVID-19, due to the high prevalence of severe pre-existing conditions among prison populations. The report 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.”

Lowering the prison population has been a main goal pushed by incarceration and prison reform activists since the pandemic began. Going into next year’s budget cycle, the Evers administration has stated it will explore numerous budget reform issues for the DOC. Among these is the problem of re-incarceration through probation and parole revocation as well as increasing programming for incarcerated people to ensure that they don’t return to prison. This late into the game, however, some feel it’s too little too late.

Fontaine Baker, who is also incarcerated in WCI, worries that the virus has outpaced the efforts of officials to grant early releases. “You bound to catch it,” Baker told Wisconsin Examiner. “I think I got it now because I got the loss of smell. The nurse came over this morning, I got a temperature of 103. I don’t feel like a headache but I feel body aches, body pains.” When he informed the nurse, Baker says he was told to drink more water and take the Tylenol provided by staff.

The worsening situation in the prison has begun to demoralize the incarcerated population. Baker was originally transferred to WCI to take a program through which he could obtain a bachelor’s degree. It was a trade-off for the 45-year-old, who had to transfer from a medium-security facility to WCI, which is maximum security, in order to join the program. “I graduate next year,” says Baker, “or I’m supposed to graduate next year but I might not make it, the way it’s looking.”

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After a round of COVID tests in late October, Baker and Sewell say that many were shocked to learn that several people who just tested positive had recently worked in the prison’s kitchens. “Come to find out that some of the people who got tested on [Oct 21] went to work on [Oct.21-23]. They had COVID, so they were up in the kitchen cooking and passing out our food,” says Baker. He and Sewell both place much of the responsibility for spreading the virus on staff members. “That’s probably the biggest issue,” says Sewell. “How are they dealing with staff that are coming into the prison?”

According to a National Guard update on COVID testing, a team went to WCI from Oct.20-23 and gathered over 1,300 samples. “This cell hall right here received their test on Oct. 21, that’s when we received our test by the National Guard,” says Sewell. “So guys were working in the kitchen that Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and then Sunday come and there were guys who tested positive that were working in the kitchen.”

Although staff attempted to find volunteers to replace the infected kitchen staff, Sewell feels it was far too late. “The thing is the virus is running so rampant through the prison that there really isn’t nobody,” says Sewell. “There aren’t enough people who don’t have the virus to work.”

When the pandemic first began, Baker recalls that some staff did not consistently wear their masks. “Oftentimes we have noticed officers who are not wearing masks,” says Sewell. “So if you have a number of officers who are not wearing masks who may be infected — they may be asymptomatic but they’re infected — then they could potentially spread the virus to us.”

Baker says he has seen a similar attitude expressed by some staff. “You have certain guards around here not wearing their masks at all.” It’s a recurring complaint reported by incarcerated people in Wisconsin over the past several months. The justifications they hear from staff stem from the lack of a legal mandate with clear consequences for not wearing a mask.

“Since the COVID first hit here, I was one of the one’s always calling them out for not wearing their masks,” said Baker. “And one of the first things that they told me way back when — a couple months ago — was, ‘Oh we’re not mandated to wear our masks.’ But I’m saying the news is telling us they got to wear them in supermarkets and stores. So ya’ll are telling us you’re not mandated to wear it, but ya’ll are the first line of defense for us. Because ya’ll are the only way it can come up in here.”

According to the DOC COVID dashboard, 117 staff members at WCI have tested positive for the virus. While staff temperatures are checked before their shift begins, other information is self-reported, according to the page. Across the entire DOC network of facilities, some 1,470 staff members have tested positive for the virus since testing began months ago.

Sitting in their cells, some alone and others with a cellmate, the people incarcerated in WCI hear rumors of people who’ve gotten particularly sick, or hadn’t been heard from again after their last infirmary or hospital visit. “The guards every now and again, they’ll say stuff,” says Baker. “So they took somebody up out of here and he supposedly passed away. When I had my people call up here and talk to them they said, ‘Nobody died in Waupun.’ Well we know ain’t nobody died in Waupun because you took them up out of here.”

Sewell has heard similar reports. “We’re trying to figure out if this brother died or not,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “He was just taken to the hospital and we’re not sure if he survived or not. There were some rumors going around that he died, but we’re not sure. We know that they took him to the hospital, they had to rush him to the hospital. He was older, he was in his late 50s, I believe.”

Beard was unable to confirm any facility-specific information regarding COVID-related deaths of incarcerated people. “We are reporting a total number of COVID-19 related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic on our dashboard,” he said. “As with the rest of the information on our dashboard, it is offered in an effort to be transparent about the current state of the virus in DOC institutions. We are not reporting identifying information related to those COVID-19 related deaths, in an effort to protect the identity and personal health information of those in our care.”

Moving forward, Baker and Sewell have little else but time on their hands. “What are we supposed to do?” asks Baker. “If we’re in the Department of Corrections, and they’re supposed to be the ones protecting us, taking care of us, they’re supposed to be examples for us in these time of correction, if you’re not following the rules how do you expect us to follow any rules? If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, how do you expect somebody to actually have faith in your system to sit up here and say they’re going to help you be a better person in society once you leave here?”

Neither Baker nor Sewell seemed afraid of retaliation for speaking out. “We not concerned about that,” Sewell told Wisconsin Examiner. “If it happens, then we deal with it. The fact that it happens is not going to stop me from talking to you. But it could be seen, because this call is being monitored or recorded.”

Sewell has been locked up for nearly 17 years, and Baker for two decades. For them, there isn’t much the system can do to move them. “Right now it’s killing hope,” said Baker. “So I think the best thing to do is get the word out, man. Let them see us, let them hear us. Ain’t nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth. We in the midst of it. We right here.”