Prison Dispatch: COVID Outbreaks, Hunger Strikes, and Protests

By Ben Prostine

Editor’s Note: We’re launching Prison Dispatch to provide regular updates on the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wisconsin’s prisons, and the wider crisis of the state’s prisons. This article contains reports on COVID-19 outbreaks, hunger strikes, food reductions, and organizing efforts, including a demonstration outside the Governor’s mansion on Tuesday (November 24). 

In the overcrowded prisons of Wisconsin’s hinterlands, where some guards are still reported to not be wearing masks, the virus continues to move through the cells at an alarming rate. According to a report from Department of Corrections (DOC) on November 20, there were 1,909 active cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin prisons, with seven prisons reporting cases of one hundred or more. The running total of reported cases since March is 7,604, with nearly 6,000 infections occurring since October 1.  The total prison population remains at 20,631, about 17% over design capacity. The DOC has reported 10 deaths related to COVID-19. Previously, the Wisconsin DOC, unlike the neighboring states of Michigan and Minnesota, was not releasing the number of deaths, citing HIPPA laws. The number, however, may be higher; according to the DOC, “a death will only be considered a COVID-19 Related Death if a local medical examiner/coroner makes the determination.”

While DOC Secretary Kevin A. Carr released a memo on November 2 to “assure every person that our agency will continue to exhaust every resource available to us in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the most feasible way of preventing a crisis – significantly reducing the prisoner population – has not been pursued. In response to reports from prisoners of medical neglect and inadequate protective supplies at Dodge Correctional Institute, the Milwaukee branch of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) organized a phone zap on November 17, demanding staff wear masks and the DOC provide prisoners with soap, disinfectant spray, hand sanitizer, and masks.  

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At least two prisoners have gone on a hunger strike at Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF) in Boscobel.  A maximum security prison, WSPF has had zero cases of COVID-19, but the prison has gone into a modified lockdown due to staff contracting the virus. A total of 25 staff members have contracted the virus at WSPF (total staff cases in all DOC facilities are over 1,600). “Now basically what I am getting from this,” one WSPF prisoner wrote to IWOC, “is that because COs [correction officers] refuse to cooperate with safety standards set by Gov. Tony Evers, and are contracting a virus, we are getting punished and are being forced to spend more time in our cells.”

A few of the demands of the striking prisoners have included no limits on phone calls, “to be fed real amounts of food,” and access to what “all people in our situation should have,” such as personal property and education programs. The hunger strikes at WSPF are part of a nationwide wave of prisoner resistance that began in March. A report by Perilous “counted 119 instances of prisoner resistance in the first 90 days of the COVID crisis.” The acts of resistance – which ranged from hunger strikes to large uprisings – occurred across 39 states, with the most protests in immigrant prisons. 

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  • Prisoners at WSPF are not the only ones reporting food reductions in DOC prisons. Other reports have come from prisoners at Redgranite, Waupun, Stanley, and Green Bay. “One sandwich with a thin slice of bologna and a thin slice of cheese and a bag of chips is not a meal,” one prisoner at Waupun told IWOC. Restrictions in food can mean incarcerated people become more reliant on food items purchased from the “canteen,” and prisoners continue to report the rising prices of canteen items. As one prisoner wrote to Fox Lake Reporter, an IWOC newsletter, “[T]he issue we are all familiarized with is the slow progression in price increase ¢.10 here ¢.03 there” and “the next thing you know we are subjected to a $10.00 bottle of mouthwash.”

With the risk of infection in kitchens, plus the difficulties of quarantining in overcrowded facilities, the changes in meals could be related to COVID-19 outbreaks and the “lockdown” status of many prisons. IWOC is currently seeking more information regarding both menus and canteen prices.

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Since October 19, WISDOM and Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) have held a daily vigil outside the Governor’s mansion near Madison to pressure Governor Evers to acknowledge the crisis of COVID-19 in Wisconsin prisons and whether he intends to use his executive powers to safely reduce the prisoner population. EXPO released a public statement urging Evers to “join the growing list of governors who have used their powers to commute sentences to move elderly and ill people out of the prisons, and to release the many very low-risk people so that those who remain in the prisons can have a chance to stay healthy.” On Tuesday, November 24, WISDOM and EXPO will be holding a demonstration outside the governor’s mansion, and ask others to join them in their vehicles. A press conference will be held at 11 a.m. and the event will be streamed live on the EXPO Facebook page.  In addition to the demonstration, phone calls will be made to the Governor’s office demanding action between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. 

Top image: Waupun Correctional Institute. 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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