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Concerns are being raised over COVID-19 infections in the Racine Correctional Institution (RCI) after an entire housing unit of incarcerated people was placed on quarantine. Word of the quarantine first made its way to prison abolitionist activists in Wisconsin, who have been in contact with people inside RCI.
The activists compiled the recent reports in a blog published on the website AbolishMKE. Wisconsin Examiner reached out to the Department of Corrections regarding the reports after being contacted by AbolishMKE.
“One housing unit at RCI was placed on quarantine Tuesday [Feb. 23] as a precaution after one person in our care in that unit tested positive for COVID-19,” said a DOC spokesperson. “There are currently two active infections at Racine Correctional Institution/Sturtevant Transitional Facility.”
Racine Correctional Institution is a medium security facility, designed with a capacity of 1,171 people. As of Feb. 26, however, it housed more than 1,500 people. On Feb. 10, there were no active positive COVID cases at RCI, but more than 1,100 people had tested positive up to that point. By March 1, four active cases were listed on the DOC’s COVID-19 dashboard. The first two positive cases were detected on Feb. 24, the same day AbolishMKE reached out to Wisconsin Examiner.
According to a message sent by an incarcerated individual to the activists, the quarantine followed a search or “shakedown” of the unit by staff. DOC staff regularly check the areas where people are incarcerated for issues, such as prohibited items. While stating a unit was placed on quarantine, the DOC did not confirm whether this action followed a sweep or search of that unit.
“They’ve been doing major unit shakedowns,” the message read, “making everyone on the unit go to the gym. Then going through the cells. I believe they did three units so far. One of the units they searched has gone back on quarantine, the entire unit.”
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The messenger noted that the quarantine, “in my view is no coincidence since staff rarely if ever change their gloves when doing cell to cell searches. They look through people’s garbage, dirty clothes, etc., and just go on to the next cell with the same gloves. Handling the next person’s stuff with the same filthy gloves.”
In addition to the quarantined housing unit, the activists stated their incarcerated contacts believed the infections occurred because of lack of precautions taken by RCI staff. Some reportedly modify the way they wear masks, others indicated they are not interested in getting vaccinated. “About a third of RCI staff have been vaccinated, so far,” said DOC’s spokesperson. “DOC continues to work with the local county health department and hospital to facilitate vaccination opportunities for RCI staff.
Some 130 staff members have tested positive for the virus at RCI, according to the DOC. That data, however, is self-reported. Of the DOC’s 36 adult institutions, just five facilities have had higher numbers of positive cases among staff.
When asked about reports of vaccine hesitancy among staff, the spokesperson did not offer specifics: “I am not sure. Generally, we have and will continue to communicate with staff and persons in our care across all facilities about the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines.”
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