MILWAUKEE (SPECTRUM NEWS) — As a record-breaking surge of coronavirus cases continues to sweep through Wisconsin, outbreaks in two state prisons have infected hundreds of inmates and employees.
Cases in correctional facilities have more than doubled in the past month: On Sept. 8, there had been 899 positive tests among those in DOC facilities, according to the department’s COVID-19 dashboard. By Thursday, Oct. 8, that number had risen to 2,157 positive tests, with 1,000 of those cases still active.
Most of the infections come from just a handful of facilities. Right now, around 80% of the DOC’s active cases are found in two medium-security prisons: Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution, which has 446 active infections, and Oshkosh Correctional Institution, which has 347.
Dodge Correctional Institution, Columbia Correctional Institution, and Gordon Correctional Center also have dozens of active cases apiece.
And more than 520 employees have self-reported testing positive over the course of the pandemic, according to DOC data — including 70 workers at Kettle Moraine and 37 at Oshkosh.
Jerome Dillard, state director of the group Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), says he’s deeply concerned about the outbreaks, and is hearing a lot of fear from people within state prisons.
“Those who I'm communicating with, who I have been communicating with through email and phone calls, are really panicking,” Dillard said. “They're seeing the news blitz of how many people are dying from this, and the effects of this on communities. And looking at their community — because they are in communities inside our correctional facilities — they're just afraid.”
The Dodge County Medical Examiner’s Office reports that at least two inmates from the Dodge Correctional Facility died in September after contracting COVID-19, according to the Associated Press.
The DOC has not reported whether any other people in their care have died from COVID-19. A DOC spokesperson said in an email that if a person in a correctional facility dies, the department does not determine cause of death, and “confidentiality laws and privacy protections prevent us from sharing information related to their medical diagnoses.”
This year, 141 inmates have applied for this type of release, according to a DOC spokesperson. Only seven so far have been released by the courts, while 11 are awaiting court dates.
Past outbreaks have also flared up at Green Bay, Waupun, and Dodge Correctional Institutions over the course of the pandemic, but have mostly simmered down. Waupun, which in May had more than 200 cases among inmates, now reports zero active infections.
The National Guard has helped conduct mass testing at state prisons, including in these two latest outbreaks. The DOC reports that its protocol is to immediately isolate any inmates who test positive, and direct any employees who test positive to self-quarantine at home for at least 14 days before returning to work. At Oshkosh, the Wisconsin State-Journal reports that the entire prison is on lockdown, with restricted movement for all inmates.
At a Tuesday briefing, Gov. Tony Evers said the “heavy-duty testing” and isolation protocols have helped quell past outbreaks.
“We isolate quickly and get the 14 days in isolation done, and drop those numbers significantly. That’s happened in every outbreak, in every institution where we have people in our care,” Evers said. “It’s really important for us to make sure that we are right on top of it.”
But in the midst of a continuing pandemic, some groups, including EXPO, are calling for the state to take more action to protect incarcerated people — like by releasing some inmates to decrease the overall prison population.
“We're adjusting and making changes in our restaurants and how we eat out now, or how we take public transportation,” Dillard says. “We can do the same with our prison system.”
The crowded nature of correctional facilities makes it hard to maintain true social distancing, Dillard says. As of Oct. 2, the DOC reported more than 21,000 inmates in adult facilities across Wisconsin, which is around 19% over the original capacity those facilities were designed to manage.
In a July letter published by the Prison Journalism Project, Madrid Brown, who is serving time at Waupun, said the inmates there were “fighting for our lives” in the midst of that facility’s earlier outbreak.
“COVID-19 is an airborne pathogen that is going to enter inmates’ living quarters,” Brown wrote. “This institution is creating a hazardous environment for individuals that don’t yet have COVID-19.”
EXPO and its umbrella organization WISDOM sent an open letter asking Evers to address what they describe as “very literally a matter of life and death for many very vulnerable people.”
In the letter, they list ways for the state to reduce its prison population by considering several groups for release, including: elderly inmates or those with preexisting conditions, anyone who is scheduled to be released within the next six months, and those who were sent to state prisons for technical violations of parole or supervision — what they refer to as “crimeless revocations.”
Wisconsin has passed legislation on sentence adjustment and early release in the past, says Christal Arroyo, an organizer with EXPO’s FREE campaign. She says now that the stakes are so high during the pandemic, the same effort should be made to “reduce and release.”
Arroyo says her cousin is incarcerated at Kettle Moraine, and his cellmate recently tested positive for COVID-19. Though her cousin has tested negative, she says she feels a “real, deep concern” about how the facilities will keep outbreaks under control.
“I'm just very worried for my family members, as well as the people that are just sitting incarcerated right now,” Arroyo says.
Similar requests to reduce prison populations were made by Sequanna Taylor, supervisor for Milwaukee County’s 2nd District, in a measure adopted by a 15-2 County Board vote in September. Taylor’s resolution calls on Evers to use his authority to release or parole more inmates and commute sentences, and therefore “reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread.”
The DOC has released more than 1,000 people from its system during the pandemic, many of whom were being held in county jails. The state also allows eligible inmates to apply for early release due to old age or extraordinarily health conditions — sometimes referred to as “compassionate release.”
Most cases were not forwarded to the courts after being reviewed by a committee. According to the DOC, the committee considers many factors — including time served, conduct history, and impact to victims — in deciding whether to send cases to the courts for consideration.
Groups across the state have been putting pressure on Evers and the state to take further action, says Ron Alexander, an organizer with NAOMI — a WISDOM affiliate in northern Wisconsin. He says they’ve organized car caravans, rallies, and call-in campaigns to the governor’s office, but that he hasn’t felt satisfied with the response so far.
These organizations have long been pushing to decrease incarceration rates in the state, and Alexander says this moment could be an opportunity to implement some of the measures they’ve raised to release low-risk inmates from the system.
Dillard says that not many governors across the U.S. are really addressing COVID-19 in state prisons, but hopes that Wisconsin can be one of the few states to take action — even if bipartisan support is hard to come by.
“The fact of the matter is that people get impatient when there's no movement,” Dillard says. “Let's do what we can do.”
At Tuesday’s media briefing, Evers did not directly address the possibility of decreasing inmate populations.
DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm did acknowledge that outbreaks in prisons, much like nursing homes and other group living situations, can spread rapidly as people are placed in close proximity, and encouraged Wisconsinites to consider these groups in their efforts to curb the statewide uptick in infections. Though the DOC has restricted visitation in its facilities, Palm said that employees can be exposed, especially when their home regions are seeing high numbers.
“Because of the intense community spread we are seeing across the state, those folks are being exposed and infected in their communities,” Palm said. “And when you’re talking about a hospital population, a nursing home population, a corrections population, those congregate living settings where you can see spread more easily — it is a clarion call for all of us to do the right thing.”
In the meantime, organizers say they’re continuing to worry about the safety of friends, family, and other incarcerated people they know who are living in the midst of these outbreaks.
“I spoke with someone who's up at Oshkosh who was really concerned about his life,” Dillard says. “He was like, ‘You know, I wrote bad checks, but I didn't think that it would be a life sentence for me.’”