Updated at 1:03 p.m. CT
According to Gov. Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s safer-at-home orders are intended to protect “vulnerable communities.” Many vulnerable populations fall directly under the state’s care, like public school students, people who receive social welfare, and much of the elderly population. Perhaps one of the most vulnerable communities, though, is the state’s prison population.
There are currently more than 20,000 people under the care of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections serving a variety of sentences. They completely depend on the state for food, shelter, medicine, and safety.
One of Evers’ prevailing campaign promises included cutting the state’s prison population in half, but groups like the ACLU have criticized the slow pace of releases for those at risk of COVID-19. The group’s lawsuit cited a 1.3% reduction in the state’s prison population since the pandemic began.
We received a Bubbler Talk question regarding Wisconsin inmates from someone whose loved one is currently incarcerated in one of several minimum-security units across the state. The inmate is concerned with the way the DOC is treating inmates and has witnessed contradictions to the DOC’s public handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. That prompted WUWM to investigate the conditions in facilities such as his.
The inmate tells WUWM that he interacted with at least one corrections officer who has tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, a fellow inmate who displayed symptoms was transferred to the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility after being threatened with solitary confinement. WUWM has corroborated the inmate’s allegations through news reports and public records available through the DOC. Given the allegations of retaliation against inmates who raise coronavirus concerns, WUWM has agreed to keep the names of the inmate and question asker private.
“All of the inmates are fearful,” said the question asker. She says prison conditions have “changed dramatically” since the coronavirus came to Wisconsin.
“They’re not allowed visitation. They’re not allowed as many phone calls,” she said.
Wisconsin inmates are at high risk for exposure to the coronavirus. Not only from corrections officers who come to work from the general public, but also through extensive work-release programs that allow inmates to leave prison confines for several hours per day to work alongside the general public.
A DOC statement provided to WUWM says that officers who display coronavirus symptoms are encouraged to stay home, but the statement did not share whether the same policy applies to contractors. Inmates are also concerned about asymptomatic cases, which can appear in as many as half of COVID-19 carriers, and can only be verified with a proper test.
Despite the DOC’s public statements that work release programs would be suspended in early April, the inmate says he and others in work release continued to work outside of the prison for three weeks after DOC Secretary Kevin A. Carr ordered to shut down the program. For many prisoners assigned to work release, opting out is not an option. Salaries earned through the program are intended to pay restitution.
“If I refused work, I was told I’d be taken to MSDF, Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility,” said the inmate. After returning to prison from work, the inmates were told that if they reported having any symptoms, they would be removed.
“So again, we’re being threatened with punishment. That’s what [inmates] call it, [DOC] might say it’s not, but it is,” he said.
The inmate says that prisoners are doing their best to maintain social distancing and other best practices, but that the prison isn’t built to accommodate those kinds of public health measures. Prisoners still share rooms, for example. Additionally, he says that inmates are expected to purchase soap and other disinfectants from the prison canteen, operated by the Union Supply Group. They are a private work-release contractor that provides the state of Wisconsin 10% of all purchase proceeds. According to the DOC statement from early April, daily spending limits at the canteen have been raised.
A DOC statement sent to WUWM says additional cleaning supplies and two reusable ear-loop masks per inmate have been ordered and are on their way to every facility as they are made available. The DOC says the masks will come at no cost to the inmates, and fabric masks are also being handed out as they’re made available.
At the time of the interview, the inmate told WUWM that he has not yet seen that shipment appear at his facility, despite being told that Union Supply Group has 100,000 masks in their possession. By Thursday, his relative reported that medical masks had been made available in his facility. The cloth masks that were previously available appear to be made from prison-issued underwear.
“We have to wear [underwear masks] or our T-shirts ... to cover our faces. If we don’t comply with that, then we receive a ticket,” said the inmate.
The inmate hopes that the DOC begins to show more transparency. He, like many, is set to be released before public health officials expect the pandemic to slow down. The inmate is concerned that if he is released without a proper test, he could put the public at risk. At the same time, he is concerned that 1998 parole reforms could move back his release date, extending his incarceration indefinitely. The DOC insists that will not be the case.
“There’s absolutely no release program that they’re allowing unless you were convicted before [the parole reforms],” said the question asker. She has not been contacted by the DOC regarding her loved one’s impending release.
Meanwhile, the inmate echoes the ACLU’s lawsuit, encouraging the DOC and Evers to consider releasing elderly and immunocompromised prisoners to reduce their risk of exposure. The ACLU claims that slow moves on the part of many states’ penal systems could lead to an additional 100,000 COVID-19 deaths nationwide. With the U.S. prison population (including Wisconsin’s) being disproportionately black, some have argued that poor pandemic management in prisons will exacerbate evident racial disparities among COVID-19 victims.
“If this is about safety, let’s be real, I think they’re just covering themselves," the inmate said.
During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.