Fearing COVID-19 In Wisconsin Prisons & Jails, Advocates Call For Selective Inmate Release

Mar 26, 2020

People who have incarcerated loved ones say they’re concerned about COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, spreading through Wisconsin’s prisons. They say it’s nearly impossible for inmates to practice social distancing, when they are in such close quarters.

Advocacy groups are calling on Gov. Tony Evers to take immediate steps to alleviate overcrowded prisons. The requests come as two staffers in the prison system have tested positive for the coronavirus.

David Liners is state director of WISDOM, a coalition of religious groups advocating for changes in the criminal justice system. Liners says he fears an outbreak of COVID-19 could happen at any moment, spreading like "wildfire" through crowded prisons.

"Prisons are a lot like cruise ships or nursing homes. Infectious diseases spread really rapidly in them." - David Liners

"Prisons are a lot like cruise ships or nursing homes. Infectious diseases spread really rapidly in them. And in particular, Wisconsin’s prisons are like at 25% over capacity. They’re extremely overcrowded. So, the chances of people being able to keep distances from each other are really slim, and it’s a matter of time before COVID-19 gets into our prisons and there’s going to be no way to stop it," he says.

Liners says the state has taken some steps to practice social distancing in the prisons. For instance, earlier this month, the state ended in-person visits between parole officers and people who are on extended supervision. They’re now visiting via phone or skype.

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Now the concern, he says, is whether inmates are able to practice social distancing and keep six feet between them.  “In Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, for example, we’ve had a lot of cases of three people in a room where there are two bunks and basically maybe four feet in between the two bunks and a third person sleeping on the floor between the two bunks," Liners says.

WISDOM and other advocacy groups are calling on Gov. Tony Evers to immediately release all inmates who are over 65 and those who are most at-risk of COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions. The groups also want the state to release all inmates who are going to be paroled within the next six months. And, they want the state to stop locking people up for technical parole violations.

Liners says most of the inmates would have somewhere to go if they are released. “They have family. They have friends. They have someone who will take them in. The ones who don’t have a place to go, we need to actually try to make provisions for,” he says.

The state Department of Corrections did not respond to WUWM's request for an interview. But in a statement, the agency says it takes the responsibility of protecting staff and inmates seriously and will work with “county partners” to discuss potential modifications to procedures.

And at the start of this week, the Department of Corrections began suspending admissions to state prisons and juvenile facilities, with exceptions for what it calls essential transfers.

Concerns over the spread of the coronavirus also have been on the mind of Milwaukee County officials. Earlier this month, the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department restricted non-essential access to the jail, including inmates’ visits with their attorneys. Those appointments are now being held via video conference.

Milwaukee County Emergency Management Director Christine Westrich says if a jail inmate were to show symptoms of COVID-19, the staff would spring into action: “In this case for COVID-19, they would immediately put a mask on that person and then for the officer that would be interacting with that person, because, of course, you are violating social distancing of six feet, they would also put on PPE. PPE is personal protective equipment. We’re recommending that they put on a mask, a face shield and gloves when they are interacting with that person. And, then they bring in medical screening.”

Westrich says if an inmate were to demonstrate severe symptoms, he or she would be transported to the emergency room, and jail staff would decontaminate the person's cell.

Meanwhile, WISDOM’s David Liners says his group will keep pressing the governor to take immediate action. He says the group is currently circulating a petition in an effort to get the governor to understand that thousands of people are afraid for the well-being of inmates.

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