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Wisconsin Inmates Say Prisons Didn't Protect Them From COVID-19 As Infection Rates Skyrocketed

Prison Cell Stock
Tracy King
Nearly 11,000 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 since last March, that's more than half of the current Wisconsin prison population.

Updated at 5:35 CDT

Prisons have been hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic. According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC), infection rates are five times higher inside correctional facilities than in the state’s general population.

Vanessa Swales is an investigative reporter for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and recently wrote a story about how COVID-19 has affected Wisconsin prisons.

“The coronavirus has pretty much run rampant across Wisconsin’s state prison system, infecting at least 10,873 inmates throughout the pandemic and that’s more than half of the current prison population. It has also infected roughly 2,500 staff members,” she says.

According to the DOC’s website, inmates are provided disposable masks, soap and hand sanitizer in common areas and their policy is to isolate those infected and quarantine those exposed as space allows. But Swales says many inmates say there’s a lack of resources – masks are not always given to inmates, hand sanitizer and soap can be hard to find and prisons have continued to keep inmates in large groups and have refused to separate out people who might have COVID-19.

These issues are made worse by fears prisoners have, that asking for better treatment will lead to worse outcomes while they were inside the prison.

“There’s a huge concern that there would be retaliation if they requested more protection,” she says.

Swales says the system itself was not designed to handle the current number of inmates, and especially not during a pandemic. There are nearly 19,500 inmates currently imprisoned in Wisconsin, but the system is only meant to hold just over 17,000 people.

Every inmate that Swales spoke to said they had concerns that overcrowding in their facility was leading to increased spread of COVID-19.

“When you bear that all in mind, being in prison really denies many prisoners the protections we as individuals outside in the ‘real world’ are afforded,” she says.

But whose job is it to make sure prisoners are kept safe? Swales says it starts with Gov. Tony Evers and goes down through the DOC. Some have raised concerns about transparency in the data around COVID-19 in prisons that the DOC has released.

“Anecdotally, I found out while reporting this story that people were dying whilst I was reporting this story and it was not reflected in the numbers released by the DOC, and for many criminal justice advocates, they feel more inmates have died and that there is this lack of transparency,” she says.

The DOC created a dashboard to track inmate deaths but it hasn’t been updated since January.

Evers has also received criticism for not providing resources to prisons but instead trying to prevent the spread outside of prisons, which he said could help stop it from getting in. He also said in December that overcrowding does not make inmates more vulnerable to getting COVID-19.

While the Federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention has advocated for prisoners and prison staff to be prioritized in vaccine distribution and incarcerated individuals are eligible for vaccination, Wisconsin has not prioritized vaccinating inmates.

Republican lawmakers passed legislation in the state Senate that would bar any inmate from being prioritized for the vaccine and while that bill has not passed in the Assembly, Swales says that has become the state’s practice.

“That decided opinion that inmates should not receive the vaccine before the general population, it still stands in many circles and with whom I’ve spoken to,” she says. “In some respects, Wisconsin is behind.”

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.