“I Didn’t Come Here on a Death Sentence”: COVID-19 Comes To Wisconsin’s Prisons

By Ben Prostine

Despite having less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States leads the world not only in the number of COVID-19 cases, but also in the number of prisoners: about one out of every five of the world’s 10.74 million prisoners is held captive in the US. Wisconsin, with an incarceration rate of 676 per 100,000 people, has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world and the second highest incarceration rate of Black men in the US (Oklahoma, one of the incarceration capitals of the world, is first). 

If Wisconsin was a sovereign nation, incarceration rates would exceed those of Russia, Iraq, the United Kingdom, Cuba, every nation in the world – except the United States. Now, over six months since the state’s Safer at Home order attempted to slow the spread of the virus, Wisconsin’s prison populations are being submitted to some of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19. The total number of confirmed cases in Wisconsin’s prison system – 3,747 as of October 26 – is three times as high as the number of cases for all of Vietnam, a country of nearly 100 million people. 

Since the beginning of October, five prisons have experienced outbreaks of over one hundred cases, with Kettle Moraine experiencing the worst: over 450 active cases – a hellish 42% of Kettle Moraine’s incarcerated population – were reported during the first week of the month. As October ends, the DOC will have added over 2,000 confirmed cases to its running tally. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons is not an accident, but a crisis by design. The design capacity of Wisconsin’s prison system is 17,654; the population as of October 16 was 20,954, 18% over total capacity, with some prisons, such as Green Bay and Racine, more than 33% over capacity. As overcrowded and confined spaces, prisons – like slaughterhouses and nursing homes – have become hosts to some of the largest outbreaks in the country. 

Despite over six months of pleas from numerous organizations and prisoners, and the administrative precedents set by other states, the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Evers administration have resisted the best means of avoiding this crisis: a significant reduction in the prisoner population. Expanding parole, granting commutations and compassionate release are a few of the options to not only release prisoners and avoid outbreaks, but to also begin correcting a long legacy of broken prison policies in the state. 

The status quo, however, has held sway and now thousands of prisoners are not only serving a criminal sentence, but also the additional sentence of unnecessarily suffering a disease – or even death. As one one prisoner with vulnerable health conditions wrote from the prison in New Lisbon, “We didn’t come here to be killed!”

From Crisis to Virus: Wisconsin’s Prison-Industrial Complex 

Prior to the pandemic, Wisconsin’s prison system, which costs the state $1.5 billion annually, was already in crisis. While the DOC, which oversees Wisconsin’s incarceration system, now refers to state prisoners as “persons in our care,” the reality bears little resemblance with what one associates with such a statement. Not so much care, but overcrowding, medical neglect, suicides, the torturous use of solitary confinement, extreme labor exploitation, and a probation system whose main achievement may be throwing people back into a cell for not even committing a crime

While the old electoral trope of “law and order” has been put to use by everyone from the president to state assembly candidates, Wisconsin crime rates have been declining for thirty years and the crime rate in 2019 was less than half of what it was in 1990. Incarceration, however, and the prison industrial complex that makes it all possible, has only expanded.

Despite declining crime rates, Wisconsin passed “tough on crime” legislation during the state’s prison boom between 1996 and 2004, when the DOC added 7,538 beds to the prison system. Co-authored by former Governor Scott Walker while he served on the state assembly, the so-called truth-in-sentencing laws introduced mandatory minimum sentences, overhauled parole standards, and replaced the probation system with “extended supervision.” Extended supervision, just as the name implies, extends the surveillance and restrictions of prison to life beyond the cell and is notorious for re-incarcerating former prisoners for crimeless violations such as missing an appointment, failing a drug test, or taking a job without agent approval. 

During Wisconsin’s turn of the century prison boom, the driftless region in the southwest corner of the state was instrumental. In 1995, there were no prisons in the region; by 2002, there were four: Jackson, New Lisbon, Prairie du Chien and the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility in Boscobel. Today the region holds over 3,000 prisoners, incarcerated mostly in state prisons, but also in “state of the art” county jails that hold DOC prisoners on contract. At an annual cost of over $100 million, and with 1,000 plus employees, the DOC system in southwest Wisconsin could be considered one of the larger “industries” in the predominantly rural region. 

Since the middle of October, both Jackson and New Lisbon prisons have begun to see a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases. As of October 27, there has been a total of 135 confirmed cases at New Lisbon (18% of the total number of cases in Juneau County) and 153 at Jackson (32% of the cases in Jackson County). At the beginning of October, Jackson prison had zero active cases. Now, within less than four weeks, 15% of the prisoners have become infected with the virus. As the Milwaukee branch of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) indicated in a press release after the outbreaks at Kettle Moraine and Oshkosh, the DOC has proven it cannot contain the spread of COVID-19: “Columbia Correctional in on lockdown. Oshkosh Correctional no longer has a place to isolate people testing positive for COVID-19. Everyone is in danger, and DOC is responsible for neglecting its people.”  

Prisoner Testimonies

“It seems like the DOC is actually trying to cause an outbreak.” 

One prisoner at Fox Lake reported this as “the most common reaction among prisoners and staff alike” to the DOC’s pandemic practices. The second was swearing, and others seemed resigned: “’It’s inevitable.’”  

Members of IWOC-Milwaukee have received numerous emails from prisoners on conditions and DOC procedures during the pandemic. IWOC, a part of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, forms bridges between prisoners on the inside and workers on the outside to challenge the abuses of the prison system and to abolish highly exploitative prison labor conditions.  

In emails to IWOC, prisoners from across the state repeatedly allude to the lack of planning by the DOC. From New Lisbon: “They did not do anything to figure out a game plan.” From Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center, a female facility near Union Grove: “They don’t know what to do here if there [is] an outbreak.” From Oshkosh: “We have not showered or been given clean clothing since last Thursday and they have no plan for us to do so going forward. There was absolutely NO plan in place if the virus came into the institution.”  From another prisoner in Oshkosh in early October: “I suspect protocols and contingency plans were not developed in advance despite at least six months of lead-time.”

Mask wearing did not become mandatory in Wisconsin prisons until June 4. Despite the mandate, prisoners from across the state – from Kettle Moraine to Columbia to Prairie du Chien – have reported some staff not following state protocols. Nicasio Quiles, a prisoner at Prairie du Chien, told The Progressive in August that prison staff were refusing to wear masks: “Excuses ranged from false concerns that ‘wearing masks will scare the prison population’ to ‘If prisoners don’t wear one, why should I?’” In some prisons, all guards are reported to be wearing masks. In others, only a few guards are reported to be disregarding masks and social distancing protocols. But, as one prisoner in Columbia noted, it only takes a few reckless ones to start an outbreak.” 

And, as Quiles added (and the line has been repeated in correspondence from numerous prisoners), “everyone knows that the only way COVID-19 enters a prison is because of staff.” In March, DOC officials suspended new admissions, work-releases, transfers, and visitations. While admissions and transfers resumed in June, with “modifications to limit the risk of potential exposure and spread of COVID-19” according to a DOC announcement, the other moratoriums remained, meaning staff are the most likely transmitters of the virus.  The recent rise of cases in Wisconsin’s prisons could be partly explained by the spread into rural areas where most of the state’s prisons are located. As of October 27, the DOC has reported a running total of 886 positive cases among staff.

Number of Total Deaths Not Released

Looking at the numbers, an emphasis should be placed on the fact that these are confirmed cases. While health services in the DOC issued a memo urging prisoners to report any symptoms, prisoners have their reasons for staying quiet. “I remain asymptomatic with negative tests,” one prisoner in Oshkosh told IWOC in early October, “but know from my traumatic experience in solitary confinement why inmates would not report symptoms: quarantine is punishment.” Furthermore, only one comprehensive test of all prisoners has occurred and that was completed in July. 

If the number of cases are potentially higher than those confirmed by the DOC, the total number of prisoner deaths and hospitalizations from the virus remain unknown. According to medical examiners’ reports, at least three prisoners have died of COVID-19 in Wisconsin and a recent email from a prisoner in Jackson prison claims ten prisoners have died at that facility from complications due to the virus. None of these reports, however, come from the DOC. Unlike the neighboring states of Minnesota and Michigan, the Wisconsin DOC, citing HIPPA laws, refuses to release any information regarding the deaths and/or hospitalizations of prisoners from COVID-19. 

In response to this lockdown of information, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin filed an open records request on October 9, requesting that the DOC not only disclose the number of prisoner deaths and hospitalizations from the virus, but also quarantine practices, testing procedures, and the availability of masks in prisons. As of October 26, the ACLU has not received a response. 

The Struggle for Compassionate Release

As the pandemic began to spread throughout the US in March, Wisconsin organizations focused on ending mass incarceration, such as WISDOM, Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), ACLU of Wisconsin, and IWOC-Milwaukee, all advocated for the compassionate release of prisoners. Recommendations included releasing elderly prisoners, low-level and non-offenses (the “crimeless revocations” of the extended supervision system, for example), and anyone eligible for parole or whose sentence would end in the next six months. Echoing the advice of an article in The Journal of American Medical Association in April, advocates agreed that the safest response to COVID-19 in prisons and jails was to significantly reduce the incarcerated population. 

As a candidate for governor in 2018, Tony Evers supported proposals by organizers to cut the state prison population in half. One would imagine the threat of the coronavirus to incarcerated populations would have provided Evers with an additional impetus. But two years after his election, and seven months into a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing down, little has been done. 

Unlike governors in Kentucky, Washington, and New Mexico, who ordered mass commutations for prisoners who met certain criteria (such as those with non-violent convictions nearing their release date), Evers has yet to utilize his executive powers. In addition to commuting sentences, Evers could also grant pardons, clemency, and reprieves (temporarily suspending a prisoner’s sentence and reinstating it after the pandemic, a practice utilized by administrations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey). This could all happen independently of Wisconsin’s gerrymandered Republican-led state legislature (Wisconsin includes a number of districts that exploit disenfranchised prison populations to dilute the vote, a practice referred to as “prison gerrymandering”). 

As the cases continue to rise in prisons and the state continues to resist the most logical solutions, prisoners continue to send messages of urgency, frustration, fear, and resignation from the inside – and organizers continue to act on the outside. EXPO is entering the second week of its daily vigil in front of the governor’s mansion. The organization intends to continue these vigils until Evers answers the calls for transparency on COVID-19 in Wisconsin’s prisons and reveals whether he intends to use his executive powers “to safely reduce the prison population during this emergency.” IWOC continues to receive correspondence from prisoners, organize “phone zaps” in response to COVID-19 outbreaks, and works to ensure prisoners receive their CARES Act stimulus check before the upcoming deadline. 

If the rapid spread of the pandemic in the prison system was not enough to make the state of Wisconsin act, maybe only a mass movement can. The pandemic, propelled by an invisible virus, has provided another opportunity to reckon with the disaster that is the US prison system, its traumas, injustices, racism and its outmoded ideas of crime and punishment. The so-called “land of the free” doesn’t have to be a land of deadly prisons and miles of razor wire. 

Top image: Columbia Correctional Center, near Portage, Wisconsin. Credit: Dual Freq/CC BY-SA 3.0.

Ben Prostine lives in Crawford County, Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in several publications, including Contours: A Literary Landscape. He is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua

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