The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit in the state’s Supreme Court on April 10, calling for the release of elderly and vulnerable people from state prisons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lawsuit was filed on the behalf of two incarcerated persons, both of whom have pre-existing conditions.
Chris Ott, executive director of Wisconsin’s ACLU, described the state’s overcrowded prisons as “a ticking time bomb,” waiting to go off. “The very modest steps taken so far by state officials are simply not enough to prevent an outbreak that would strain our hospital system, endanger public health, and claim thousands of lives. State officials have the power to avert this catastrophe—and they have to act now.”
Over 23,000 adults are currently in the custody of the Department of Corrections (DoC), along with 136 youth prisoners, across 37 adult facilities and three for youth. To date, 96 tests for COVID-19 have been conducted across the DoC, with five incarcerated persons known to have tested positive.
Within the adult facilities, nine DoC staff have tested positive, with another three in Milwaukee who work in community corrections. A web page tracking positive tests for staff, however, notes that staff information is self-reported. The largest number of positive cases among staff — five — occurred within the controversial Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF). The Columbia Correctional Institution has reported three positive cases among staff. One staff member tested positive at the Waupun Correctional Institution.
On April 2, DoC Secretary Kevin Carr issued a message on the department’s website, with 1,550 cases of COVID-19 known statewide at that time. “I understand the serious implications of the COVID-19,” wrote Carr, “and DoC is following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for management of COVID-19 in correctional facilities.”
Carr noted several changes in DoC policy to mitigate the spread of the virus, including increasing sanitation and enforcing social distancing during dining, recreation, and other activities for incarcerated people. The department has also released supervision holds on 1,148 non-violent misdemeanants statewide, and released others in custody who qualified for “certain earned release”.
“These non-violent persons had less than one year to serve in prison and will be on community supervision,” Carr noted. Another 65 people attached to the Alternative for Revocation (ATR) program at MSDF were also identified for release on April 2.
The Evers Administration noted in the April 10 Department of Health Services (DHS) briefing on the pandemic that the use of crimeless revocations has been reduced, and staff are being regularly screened for symptoms during their shifts. If too many correctional officers at a particular institution fall ill, the government is prepared to activate the National Guard to fill this roll.
Still, activists and advocates pushing for more action to protect Wisconsin’s incarcerated population from COVID-19 aren’t satisfied. “Public health experts have been clear that reducing prison populations is vital to combating the spread of this disease,” said ACLU staff attorney Tim Muth.
“The overcrowded conditions in our prisons and jails now pose an imminent threat not only to the vulnerable people incarcerated there, but also to their staff and surrounding communities.” Muth stresses, “lives are at risk and we simply cannot afford to wait.” According to a press release detailing the freshly minted lawsuit, the number of people over the age of 50 tripled in Wisconsin’s prisons between 2000 and 2016 from 1,320 to over 4,300.
The lawsuit is also supported by a pair of professors, Dr. Amanda Simanek and Dr. Lorraine Halinka Malcoe, both epidemiology professors at UW-Milwaukee. In a joint statement they said, “As epidemiologists and public health professionals, we urge actions to safely and rapidly reduce Wisconsin’s prison populations in order to minimize the risk of severe outbreaks of COVID-19 — and especially hospitalizations and deaths — among incarcerated persons and correctional staff. The time for action is now.”
Representatives Michal Schraa (R- Oshkosh) and Evan Goyke (D- Milwaukee) have also issued a joint statement calling for more action from the DoC. “There may come a time to consider more stringent measures,” it reads. “Wardens have had wide discretion in how to address the pandemic in each institution, yet in light of recent events, clear leadership is required.” The pair are, “calling on the DoC Central Office to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to implement a partial or full lock down within DoC institutions.”
One of the plaintiffs, Ramond Ninneman, 66 years old, currently has 16 months remaining on a two year sentence. He was diagnosed with cardiac disease leaving him with only 25-30% of heart function. Rana, his daughter, says her father hasn’t gotten adequate treatment for his heart disease by DoC even before the pandemic. “State officials need to act now so that my dad and other people with pre-existing conditions can come home where they can safely practice social distancing and help keep all of us healthy,” she pleads.