As we know, coronavirus spreads like wildfire through crowded places and U.S. prisons are no exception. Though we are many months into this pandemic, government officials have yet to create uniform guidelines for virus testing, reporting and managing.

We’ve seen how a lack of leadership and planning can lead to aggressive spikes in cases at schools. Now, the U.S. prison system is struggling to manage inmates’ health, illustrating the need for fundamental prison transparency and reform.

At least two prisoners in Dodge Correctional Facility died from coronavirus in September, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. These are the only known deaths in the Wisconsin prison system as privacy laws restrict further medical data from the public. While the WSJ suggests these are the first COVID-19-related deaths in Wisconsin prisons, I am not convinced. 

As of Oct. 7, Oshkosh Correctional had 344 active inmate cases of coronavirus, and Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution had 417 — the largest Wisconsin prison outbreak. That is over 700 cases between only two prisons, and these figures are not even cumulative. What’s more, the Winnebago County Coroner’s Office “declined to comment whether any COVID-19 deaths have occurred at Oshkosh Correctional,” according to the AP Wire.

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It is not uncommon for medical information to be withheld in order to protect a person’s privacy. The Department of Corrections operates under HIPAA guidelines, and is therefore entitled to safeguard personal information. However, protecting identity and personal info is one thing, but withholding total numbers for infection and death is something else entirely.

The U.S. prison system is under a social magnifying glass right now. Private prisons are being criticized for their capitalist interests, and prison labor is being referred to as an extension of slave labor.

Many prisons are extremely crowded, making super-spread events all the more likely. By withholding important COVID-19 tracking information from the public, it would seem as though the Wisconsin DOC is preventing citizens from demanding prison reform and accountability.

Does the link between COVID-19 cases and prison reform sound far fetched? Think again. Countless prison systems across America have seen a growth in headlines criticizing prison conditions after case numbers are reported.

In my home state of Colorado, for example, the CO DOC reported over 900 cases across the state. Hundreds of inmates were granted early release by the governor. This action resulted in public discourse regarding prison guidelines.

Why were some prisoners eligible and not others? If prisoners are eligible to be released early, why was their regular released date placed later? 

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Moving forward, the Wisconsin DOC has two options. It can continue to withhold prison data in hopes that election and fall festivity headlines keep Wisconsinites occupied and uninquisitive. Or, the DOC can release basic, HIPAA-compliant information regarding the case number and deaths in each of its facilities.

It can open itself to suggestions on modernizing health codes within these facilities. Obviously, the second path is one of higher conflict and negative PR, but currently the DOC is just shoving larger issues under the rug. Sooner or later, the public will be demanding a reconciliation with the outdated, racist and secretive nature of Wisconsin prisons.

Emma Axelrod ([email protected]) is a junior studying political science and journalism.