Is Wisconsin’s pandemic prison population going down quickly enough?

“We are not holding our breath,” say activists

Hands grasping bars in jail or prison
Getty Images

Granting compassionate release and clemency remains a focal point issue for incarceration activists across the state. Wisconsin’s rate of COVID-19 infection remains stubbornly high, and those held in its prisons are particularly vulnerable. According to the Department of Corrections (DOC), 14 incarcerated people have died of causes related to COVID-19. Over 7,900 in all have tested positive, with 1,264 “active” positive cases. Some 138 incarcerated people who have tested positive have been released from their respective facilities.

Prison reform and abolition activists don’t feel the DOC or Gov. Tony Evers are moving quickly enough. That’s why, as dawn broke on Dec. 2, members of a prison abolitionist group left 11 body bags on the front lawn of DOC Secretary Kevin Carr. “We wanted to see Kevin publicly deal with these deaths and demand that he join the many calls for Gov. Tony Evers to issue an emergency mass clemency,” says Ben Turk, one of the organizers. “He came out and dragged the body bags to the side of his house while it was still dark, but we confronted him at sunrise.”

Department Of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Department Of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The activists filmed its direct action at Carr’s house and uploaded the footage to YouTube. “People have tried many avenues to request a mass clemency for Gov. Evers,” says Turk. “Friends and family members have sent the governor clemency waiver requests. They have staged occupations outside Carr’s house and outside the governor’s mansion.” As the pandemic continues, FFUP claims the calls for action are growing.

Recently, Wisconsin Examiner was contacted by two men incarcerated within the Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI). They’d just gone through a COVID surge in the prison, where 717 prisoners have tested positive for the virus, reaching a peak of over 400 active positive cases on Nov. 1. That number has since dwindled down to just one active case.

DOC announced on Dec. 1 that a cell hall in WCI will be closed. DOC spokesperson John Beard says that the decision was not related to the pandemic. But closing the cell hall will decrease WCI’s population by 20%. Like many Badger State prisons, WCI is overcrowded. Designed for 882 incarcerated people, WCI had over 1,100 people locked up in November. The population decreased by 25 people between August and November.

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

Closing the cell hall means that 220 individuals will be moved from WCI, which is a maximum-security institution. They will be relocated to various medium-security facilities across the state over the next few months. “We have been working for more than a year on various ways to better align our institution populations, moving more persons in our care to sites consistent with their security classification. We want more individuals classified as medium security living in medium-security institutions and more individuals classified as minimum security moved into minimum-security institutions,” said Carr. “Our adult population is at the lowest point it has been in two decades, which gives us the available space to make these moves.”

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

Decreasing the population may also alleviate the work-load of staff, and help in recruiting. “Because there are several other DOC institutions in Dodge County and the surrounding area, it has been more difficult to find and recruit new potential employees in that geographic region,” said DOC Division of Adult Institutions Administrator Makda Fessahaye. “We’ve taken many steps to try and address vacancy rates at Waupun. We think closing the cell hall will help address staffing while meeting the alignment goals of our agency.”

The same day the cell closure was announced, Evers offered assurances that DOC does what it can to prevent spread among incarcerated people. “We absolutely try everything we can to keep the virus from spreading to our prison population,” Evers told Wisconsin Examiner. “And that goes back to the things we’ve all talked about a gazillion times — it’s masking, it’s physical distancing, it’s making sure that you’re not hanging out in small places with lots of other people that aren’t wearing a mask. All those things are going to help the people in our care.”

Evers added that “our prison population actually decreased during the pandemic for various types of programs … it’s clear that it’s helpful.”

But, “if we still have community spread, it will still be getting into the prison,” he said.

Evers favors decreasing the prison population regardless of the pandemic. “We need to have a criminal justice reform in the state and reduce the number of people entering the system,” he said. “Helping the people that exit the system in a better way — there’s all sorts of things we can do long-term, which we will be more than interested in doing.”

The activists, however, takes issue with the notion that the prison population is decreasing in an effective way. “Wisconsin’s prison population was actually steadily rising under [Carr’s] watch,” says Turk. “And it began a very slow decline in response to the COVID-19 emergency. That response has been proven woefully inadequate, leading to the current outbreak and recent deaths.”

Moving forward, the organizers and their allies will continue pushing for mass clemency, and compassionate releases — particularly for vulnerable incarcerated people, who face the prospect of dying in prison in a state without a death penalty.

Additionally, activists worry that  incarceration rates will rise again once the pandemic passes. “Unless more decisive action is taken,” says Turk, “the DOC will return to its steady growth trend after the pandemic.” While these activists and other groups continue to push for reform, he says, “we are not holding our breath.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that FFUP (Forum For Understanding Prisons) was not directly involved in the direct action at Sec. Kevin Carr’s home. Some activists which have recently disassociated from the group led and participated in the action.