According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website, the state has seen its coronavirus positivity rate climb from around three percent in early June to over 16% as of Sept. 26. This rising positivity rate is not independent to the state’s free citizens, but extends to those who are currently incarcerated in our prison system.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections COVID-19 dashboard reported that though there was just 54 additional cases between June and August, this number spiked later in the summer with 801 new cases between Aug. 1 and Sept. 26. Total inmate positive cases have now reached 1108.
Director of Communications for the Wisconsin DOC John Beard said their case numbers throughout the spring and summer were very low, aside from one outbreak at the Waupun correctional facility. Beard also pointed out that 24 of 37 institutions have two or less positive cases.
Beard said in order to combat infection, Wisconsin’s correctional facilities had to alter a variety of their programs, including changing visitation from in-person to on Zoom.
“It’s not as good as in-person interaction, but it is the safer option at this time, due to the pandemic,” Beard said.
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Beard said facilities emphasized the importance of hygiene and wearing face coverings to both staff and those in the DOC’s care. Staff are required to wear masks inside buildings, while inmates are required to wear masks while in common areas, but not while in their cells.
Along with cleaning protocols, Beard said mass testing has helped control large outbreaks. The testing efforts were a coordinated effort with the DHS and the Wisconsin National Guard. Beard said mass testing can help identify asymptomatic carriers, allowing the facilities to quarantine those who came in contact with a carrier of the disease.
“We had 250 active cases at Green Bay Correctional on Aug. 24,” Beard said. “We were down to 35 active cases there today.”
Regional Organizer for the Smart Justice Campaign of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Melissa Ludin spoke on the ACLU’s stance with regards to managing a prison population during a pandemic and her belief in a need to end mass incarceration and racial disparities in the prison system.
Ludin said when the pandemic began to erupt in the U.S. in March, ACLU-WI sent a letter to the Wisconsin DOC, 72 county sheriffs and several prosecutors discussing measures they could take to reduce prison and jail populations.
Ludin said ACLU-WI recommended granting commutations release to anyone whose sentence ends in the next year, inmates deemed at an increased risk to COVID-19’s severe health complications and inmates whose sentences end in the next two years or who are incarcerated due to a technical rule violation.
The ACLU’s smart justice campaign has worked toward reforming the technical rule violation system since before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the ACLU website.
The ACLU states an individual who commits a technical violation can be sent back to prison for violating a rule of supervision that does not involve committing a new crime, such as missing an appointment or accepting a new job without permission. According to the ACLU-WI, crimeless admissions accounted for 37% of all admissions to Wisconsin prisons in 2017.
Ludin said the ACLU was pleased to see county jails making progress earlier this year in reducing their populations. According to Ludin, over 1,000 inmates who were released from jails were detained on misdemeanor violations of probation.
These jails reduced their population through allowing multiple inmates to be released on signature bonds if they were not seen as a threat to public safety. GPS monitoring and weekly check-ins were set up for those released. So far, Ludin said this system has been successful.
According to Ludin, Gov. Tony Evers has the ability to grant commutations to prisoners by passing an executive order. Evers has yet to grant these commutations in Wisconsin’s correctional facilities.
Ludin said providing relief for prisoners is a humanitarian issue and that most inmates are not incarcerated on violent crime charges, but are now at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
“None of these people were sentenced to die in a facility in which they have very little control over their environment and health,” Ludin said.