The Invisible Enemy: Inmates fear the COVID-19 pandemic in overcrowded Wisconsin prisons
Mia White was stepping off the walking track at Taycheedah Correctional Institution in 2018 when the ground crumbled beneath her feet and her back popped. Her spine, fractured and bulging, deteriorated for months while she begged medical staff to order imaging of her back.
White says her spine became arthritic, and she developed blood clots that burned in the back of her leg. Sometimes she woke in the middle of the night, gasping for air, the result of an enlarged heart. Now housed at the minimum security Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center, White struggles throughout the day to breathe and sometimes verges on passing out. But when her doctor recently suggested she should leave prison to get medical care, she refused.
“I denied it because I was afraid of being put on quarantine, because for two weeks you can’t talk to your family,” White said. “I fear dying alone.”
White, who has a year left on a misdemeanor battery charge, faces a risk of developing complications from COVID-19. She lives in constant fear of catching what she calls “the invisible enemy” in an institution that she says does little to protect her. White prays that she won’t be infected by the correctional officers not wearing masks, or the women who sit close by during meals, or her cellmate who sleeps less than 6 feet from her.
Life inside the walls of Wisconsin’s prisons has transformed in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Inmates say there are more frequent cleanings, and they have been issued cloth masks.
No new inmates are being admitted to the state’s prisons, although limited admissions are scheduled to resume June 1, Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr told WPR on Wednesday. Visitation and transfers have ceased, and library and recreation access have been reduced. Some prisons have gone under a modified lockdown that keeps inmates in their cells most of the day except for showers and phone calls.
The DOC has reduced the number of inmates in response to COVID-19 by nearly 1,600. The bulk of this reduction — 1,447 — were nonviolent misdemeanants facing return to prison for allegedly violating terms of their release. They were being held in county jails and at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. Another 65 inmates were released from MSDF as part of an alternative program.
Overall, the DOC inmate population has shrunk from 23,436 on March 13 to 22,104 on May 15, a reduction mostly caused by inmates released after completing sentences and the halt on new prison admissions.
ACLU-Wisconsin staff attorney Tim Muth said resuming admissions will increase the risk of a serious outbreak. The DOC did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
“Suspending admissions has been one of the few measures that has actually shrunk the prison population amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” Muth wrote in an email to the Cap Times/Wisconsin Watch.
Inmates say overcrowding leaves them regularly too close to their peers and staff; Wisconsin prisons house 25% more inmates than they were designed to. And few prisoners have been tested.
“DOC is working to balance keeping operations as normal as possible, while taking the necessary steps to mitigate the risk of having the COVID-19 virus enter our institutions and spread,” DOC spokeswoman Anna Neal said.
But incarcerated individuals say they still lack key protections from a virus that has ripped through prisons and jails in other states. Nationally, as of May 13, there were at least 6,779 correctional officers and 25,239 prisoners who tested positive, according to The Marshall Project, which is tracking prison outbreaks. At the same time, 373 prisoners and 28 employees had died from COVID-19 nationwide.
In Wisconsin, 34 prisoners and 32 prison employees have tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 19. Another 1,047 inmates were in quarantine because of potential exposure to the virus, and 24 were in isolation after showing symptoms of the disease, DOC figures show. No deaths have been reported. But at most jails and prisons in Wisconsin, testing so far is spotty, at best.
Across the country, prisons and jails have become epicenters of COVID-19 infection due to overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions. Seven of the 10 largest outbreaks have occurred in prisons and jails, according to a running tally by the New York Times.
The Cap Times and Wisconsin Watch interviewed nearly two dozen inmates, analyzed data and talked with experts to gauge how Wisconsin had responded to the pandemic in its prisons and jails. The findings:
- Outside of three counties that have conducted mass-testing, most jails surveyed by the Cap Times/Wisconsin Watch reported testing few, if any, inmates. The picture is the same in state prisons. As of May 18, the state Department of Corrections tested just 405 of the state’s 22,000 inmates — roughly half the testing rate per 1,000 people among the state’s general population. DOC announced in early May it would test all inmates in Wisconsin, beginning with its facilities in Milwaukee.
- Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons lag far behind county jails in reducing inmate populations, which experts say is crucial to allow for physical distancing. On average, jails surveyed by the Cap Times/Wisconsin Watch housed 37% fewer inmates in May than they did before the pandemic struck. The prison population decreased by just 5%.
- In interviews, emails and letters, inmates confirmed prisons have upped cleaning protocols, handed out cloth masks and implemented physical distancing rules where possible. But they said key protections are still missing. Correctional officers go against CDC guidelines by routinely working without masks, and inmates are frequently within 6 feet of each other during meals and in common areas.
ACLU-Wisconsin legal director Larry Dupuis said incarcerated individuals were sentenced to do time but were not sentenced to suffer unnecessary disease — and potentially, death. The organization argues a significant proportion of inmates, many of whom are over the age of 50 or within two years of being released, could be put on home confinement or be required to wear a GPS bracelet. Fifty-five percent of prisoners had two or fewer years left to serve as of December 2018.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court in April that asked the court to order Gov. Tony Evers and state corrections officials to reduce the prison population enough to make social distancing possible. Evers, a Democrat, campaigned on a promise to cut the state prison population by 50%, but his administration opposed the ACLU’s attempt to force inmate releases because of the pandemic.
The court dismissed that lawsuit, and officials are declining to use mechanisms that Dupuis said could quickly and meaningfully reduce prison populations, including sentence commutations and pardons — which Evers has the power to do single-handedly— and compassionate release of ill or elderly inmates. Evers’ office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Rev. Willie Briscoe of the Milwaukee-based prisoner-advocacy group Wisdom said in a statement that the group is “deeply disappointed” in Evers.
“The governor has the authority to commute the sentences of people in prison, to grant pardons, and even to grant furloughs to people in prison,” Briscoe said. “He does not need the Legislature or the Supreme Court in order to safely and quickly move at least 25% of people out of our state prisons, starting with the elderly, the sick and those who would be coming home soon anyway.”
Dupuis said time is of the essence, and “There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of urgency to get people out.”
Early warning system lacking
Testing is an imperfect but essential tool to prevent outbreaks, especially because a significant number of people can spread COVID-19 before showing any symptoms, said Lorraine Malcoe, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“There are huge numbers of people who are in the population who are infected, transmitting it to others, who look perfectly healthy, and no one knows anything,” Malcoe said. “So the only way to tell is to test.”
Wisconsin ranked 37 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for its testing rate of the general population as of May 18, according to an analysis of Marshall Project and COVID Tracking Project data. It also ranked low — 32 out of 39 states with reliable data — for testing people housed in state prisons as of May 13.
More than half of Wisconsin’s prisons tested fewer than three inmates as of May 18. Seven prisons did not test a single inmate, DOC figures show. That story holds true in most of the state’s jails, run by county sheriff’s departments, except for Dane, Kenosha and Milwaukee counties, which have done mass-testing with help from the Wisconsin National Guard.
Out of 31 counties surveyed that provided testing data, just 19 of 2,546 inmates were tested since the pandemic struck. None of these inmates tested positive.
The lack of testing leaves Wisconsinites with no way to fully know how COVID-19 is affecting incarcerated people, Malcoe said. It is possible that the virus is silently spreading in jails and prisons, especially in areas where there is significant community spread. Mass-testing in Wisconsin and other states support that idea.
- At the House of Corrections in Milwaukee, 103 of 623 inmates tested positive as of April 22.
- In Kenosha County, 80 inmates at two jail facilities tested positive, or about 20% of the population, plus 17 staff.
- At the Dane County Jail, 29 inmates and seven employees have tested positive — including many who were asymptomatic.
The Council of Prison Locals, which represents more than 30,000 workers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the ACLU called for mass-testing of all prison employees and inmates in response to more than 5,000 state and federal correctional officers testing positive for COVID-19.
“Anything less than immediate drastic action constitutes a lack of regard for the lives of tens of thousands of correctional professionals and millions of incarcerated people and their families,” the organizations wrote in a joint statement.
Social distancing difficult behind bars
Physical distancing of at least 6 feet is the “only effective means of slowing the rate of infection,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. But inmates at 10 Wisconsin prisons said maintaining that distance while locked up is impossible.
Under state law, cells holding two inmates can be no smaller than 70 square feet — or the equivalent of 7 feet by 10 feet — making a 6-foot buffer between inmates virtually impossible. Shane Taylor, an inmate at Stanley Correctional Institution near Eau Claire, said in a mid-April interview that inmates still eat shoulder-to-shoulder during dining periods. Four inmates eat at each table, he said, with a 1-foot buffer zone between tables.
Taylor has seen a virus sweep through Stanley before when the norovirus infected many inmates on his wing.
“It’s going to spread if it gets in, like it did in Cook County,” Taylor said, referring to a massive COVID-19 outbreak at the Illinois jail which has reported more than 1,000 positive cases.
‘No elbow room’
At Oakhill Correctional, an inmate who wished to remain anonymous said ending library and recreation proved futile because of the prison’s broader overcrowding. Oakhill is the most overcrowded prison in Wisconsin, operating at more than twice its 344-inmate designed capacity.
The inmate said he has “no elbow room” when inmates eat meals in the cafeteria, and he sleeps within 2 feet of his cellmate, who has respiratory issues and uses a CPAP machine to draw oxygen when he sleeps. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that people who use CPAP machines sleep alone during the pandemic because the machines could scatter virus-containing particles in the air.
Inmates at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage said they struggle psychologically under the restrictions enacted after a potential positive COVID-19 case was discovered. Since then, they emerge from their cells only for phone calls and showers. Raymond Jones, an inmate at Columbia, said the seclusion and lack of socialization and exercise are taking a toll.
Some prisons and jails also house inmates in barracks or dormitory-style settings. Inmate James Holloway said Oshkosh Correctional has stopped day room and outside recreation time, but inmates in his dorm still sleep within 3 feet of each other. When two inmates from his dorm were placed in quarantine due to suspected COVID-19, Holloway said staff left their sleeping blankets behind.
“The admin locked us in the dorm where it could have spread to the rest of us,” Holloway wrote in an email.
Ron Schilling, an inmate at Kettle Moraine, called DOC’s attempts to control the spread of COVID-19 “patently ridiculous.” Staff took out every other computer keyboard from the law library to allow for social distancing, yet everywhere else “we have to sit elbow to elbow,” said Schilling, who is serving time for a 1975 homicide. Schilling is parole-eligible and has requested clemency with the help of the prison advocacy group Forum for Understanding Prisons, citing his compromised immune system and respiratory issues.
“The lack of preventative treatment from systemic overcrowding and understaffing is going to be the final nails in our coffins,” the 68-year-old Schilling said.
Releases one way to lower risk
Advocates want prisons and jails to allow social distancing by trimming inmate ranks. Wisconsin’s county sheriff departments and the DOC have heeded that call, but populations inside the state’s prisons have barely budged. Among the 38 jails that answered a Cap Times/Wisconsin Watch survey or had inmate populations reported by New York University’s Public Safety Lab, inmate reductions averaged 37% since the pandemic began.
- Green and Chippewa counties saw the largest percentage decreases, reducing their populations by 65% each.
More populous institutions, including the Milwaukee and Dane county jails, released the most inmates. Public Safety Lab figures show the Milwaukee County Jail and House of Corrections populations dropped by 26% to 1,443 since mid-March.
- Jails reduced populations by releasing on electronic monitoring inmates who are already on work-release; keeping fewer people in jail on probation holds; working with local courts to delay sentencing; expediting bail hearings; and working with police to limit arrests.
- The DOC also contributed significantly to these reductions by cutting the number of probation and parole holds on inmates housed in county jails by 1,229. An individual can be placed in jail on a hold if they are suspected of violating terms of their supervised release.
The Chippewa County Jail normally holds about 120 inmates. It now has just 42 inmates thanks to the reductions, said Capt. Curt Dutton, the jail’s administrator. Among the strategies Dutton used was sending 53 inmates eligible for work-release to serve their sentences on home detention.
The Dane County Jail cut its inmate population by more than one-third. Even so, physical distancing is difficult, said inmate Carlos Wilson. In early April, he struggled to stay 6 feet from the five other inmates in his pod, he said. That’s still the case, another inmate in Wilson’s pod said in an interview earlier this month.
“It’s real scary,” Wilson said of the jail’s conditions. “I just want to make it home to my mother.”
Tools to reduce population unused
In addition to shortening sentences and pardons, Evers could grant reprieves. This rarely used gubernatorial power would allow Evers to temporarily suspend inmates’ sentences and reinstate them after the pandemic. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among states that have confronted COVID-19 challenges by issuing reprieves, Dupuis, of ACLU-Wisconsin, said.
Despite campaign promises to slash populations, Evers has yet to order the release of a single inmate during this pandemic. Evers told the Wisconsin State Journal in late April that he would not use his powers to release inmates at that time. Whether parole would achieve those goals is an open question. Since March 1, the Parole Commission authorized the release of 44 inmates. During that same period last year, 32 were authorized for release, according to the commission.
Wisconsin Parole Commission Chairman-designee John Tate II said in a brief in the ACLU case that he has created a list of about 270 people who may be suitable for expedited release due to age, medical condition and progress in the parole process, but they would have to meet all previous expectations to qualify for release.
“While I understand the gravity and urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic as it relates to Wisconsin prisons,” he wrote, “I cannot release persons-in-custody on a mass-scale.”
Mia White, the Ellsworth inmate, petitioned for a shortened sentence due to her medical conditions. The request was denied.
“It honestly scares me on a regular basis because I have two small kids at home that depend on me,” White said, her voice cracking. “I just feel like my kids deserve to be able to have a chance to have a mother.”
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