Mia White, an inmate at the Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center, has numerous health problems including an enlarged heart, which makes it hard to breathe.
But when her doctor recommended she leave the prison to get medical care, White refused — fearful of being placed into quarantine and unable to contact her family, and afraid of “dying alone” if she contracts COVID-19, which she calls “the invisible enemy.”
With a year left on her sentence for misdemeanor battery, White prays she won’t be infected by the correctional officers without 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 as officials and inmates try to slow the spread of the virus. Inmates say there are more frequent cleanings, and they have been issued cloth masks.
New admissions to the state’s prisons were halted, but limited admissions are planned 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 are on modified lockdowns, keeping inmates in their cells most of the day except for showers and phone calls.
The state DOC has reduced the number of inmates 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 being held in county jails and at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility.
Overall, the DOC population has shrunk to 22,104 since the beginning of Wisconsin’s health emergency in mid-March. Nevertheless, inmates say overcrowding regularly leaves them too close to their peers and staff as the Wisconsin prison system remains 25% above design capacity. 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.
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: Protections lacking
But incarcerated individuals say they still lack key protections from a virus that has ripped through prisons and jails in other states. Seven of the 10 largest U.S. outbreaks have occurred in these settings, according to a running tally by the New York Times.
Nationally, as of May 13, there were at least 6,779 correctional officers and 25,239 prisoners with COVID-19, according to The Marshall Project, which tracks prison outbreaks. At least 373 prisoners and 28 employees had died from the disease 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.
The Cap Times and Wisconsin Watch interviewed nearly two dozen inmates, surveyed jail officials, analyzed data and talked with experts to gauge how Wisconsin had responded to the pandemic in its prisons and jails. The findings:
● Outside of Dane, Kenosha and Milwaukee counties, which conducted mass-testing, most jails surveyed reported testing few, if any, inmates. The picture is the same in state prisons. As of May 19, the state DOC tested just 405 inmates — although the agency says it plans to eventually test all of them.
● Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons lag far behind county jails in reducing inmate populations. 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 said key protections are still missing, including correctional officers who go against CDC guidelines by routinely working without masks, and crowded conditions during meals and in common areas.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court in April, asking 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 ACLU-Wisconsin legal director Larry Dupuis said could quickly 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 for failing to use his powers to release inmates who are old, sick or close to finishing their sentences.
Said Dupuis: “There just doesn't seem to be a lot of urgency to get people out.”
Early warning system lacking
Testing is an essential tool to prevent outbreaks, especially since a significant number of people “who look perfectly healthy” can spread COVID-19, said Lorraine Malcoe, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“So the only way to tell,” Malcoe said, “is to test.”
According to an analysis of Marshall Project and COVID Tracking Project data, Wisconsin ranked low — 32 out of 39 states with reliable data — for testing people housed in state prisons as of May 13. Wisconsin DOC figures show seven prisons have not tested a single inmate as of May 18.
That story holds true in most of the state’s jails, run by county sheriff’s departments. The exceptions are Dane, Kenosha and Milwaukee counties, which have tested all inmates and staff with help from the Wisconsin National Guard.
Out of 31 counties surveyed by the Cap Times/Wisconsin Watch that provided testing data, just 19 of 2,546 inmates were tested since the pandemic struck. None tested positive.
Mass-testing has shown the virus is spreading behind bars in Wisconsin. For example, at the House of Corrections in Milwaukee, 103 of 623 inmates tested positive as of April 22.
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 interviewed by the Cap Times/Wisconsin Watch said maintaining that distance 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.
At Oakhill Correctional, an inmate who wished to remain anonymous said curbing access to the library and recreation proved futile because of the prison’s broader overcrowding — the worst in the system, operating at more than twice its 344-inmate designed capacity.
The inmate said he has “no elbow room” at mealtime, and he sleeps within 2 feet of his cellmate, who uses a CPAP machine to draw oxygen when he sleeps. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that people who use them sleep alone during the pandemic because the machines could scatter the virus into the air.
Some prisons and jails also house inmates in dormitory or barracks-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. Two inmates from his dorm were placed in quarantine due to suspected COVID-19, he said.
Ron Schilling, an inmate at Kettle Moraine, said in an email that DOC’s attempts to control COVID-19 are “patently ridiculous.” Staff took out every other computer keyboard from the law library to allow for social distancing, Schilling said, yet everywhere else “we have to sit elbow to elbow.”
“Systemic overcrowding and understaffing is going to be the final nails in our coffins,” said Schilling, 68, who has requested clemency, citing his compromised immune system and respiratory issues.
In Wisconsin, jails surveyed by the Cap Times/Wisconsin Watch have reduced populations by releasing work-release inmates on electronic monitoring; 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.
Among the 38 jails answering the survey or which had inmate populations reported by New York University’s Public Safety Lab, Green and Chippewa counties saw the largest percentage decreases, reducing their populations by 65% each.
The Chippewa County Jail normally holds about 120 inmates. It now has just 42 thanks to the reductions, said Capt. Curt Dutton, the jail’s administrator. Among the strategies Dutton used: sending 53 inmates eligible for work-release to serve their sentences on home detention.
Tools to reduce population unused
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 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.”
White, the Ellsworth inmate, petitioned for a shortened sentence due to her compromised health. 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.”
This story comes from a partnership of Wisconsin Watch and the Cap Times. Parker Schorr is a Cap Times public affairs reporting fellow embedded in the newsroom of Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org), which collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.