By Ben Prostine
Since October 19, Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) and WISDOM – a faith-based social justice organization – have held a daily vigil outside the governor’s mansion to urge Gov. Evers to acknowledge the crisis of COVID-19 in Wisconsin’s prisons and use his executive powers to release prisoners. With no response from the Evers administration, EXPO resorted to civil disobedience, blocking the driveway to the Governor’s mansion on November 24. Despite the protests, the blockade ended with no acknowledgement from Evers or anyone in his administration.
Almost a week later, a group of prison abolition activists performed a direct action outside the home of DOC Secretary Kevin Carr. The abolitionists left 11 body bags in the secretary’s driveway to, in the words of the group, “make him deal physically, with the deaths he’s causing.” The direct action was filmed by the group and can be seen on YouTube.
As prisoners and activists have repeatedly said: a criminal sentence should not be a death sentence. The DOC, as of December 7, has reported 14 COVID-19 related deaths and the state prison system has turned into a covid gulag – with fourteen prisons experiencing outbreaks of one hundred or more cases since the beginning of October. Since the DOC began recording COVID-19 cases in the spring, over 9,400 total prisoner cases have been reported.
The Governor Speaks
In a media briefing on December 1, Gov. Evers finally broke his silence on the pandemic in the state’s prisons.
With the increased risk of COVID-19 in Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons, and the outbreaks in numerous facilities, Evers was asked if it was time to consider some form of compassionate release, and if not, why. Evers responded that the prison population had decreased during the pandemic – down about 3,000 from the beginning of the year – and voiced his support for long-term criminal justice reform to “reduce the number of people entering the system” and help “people exit the system in a better way.”
Evers, however, made no allusions to compassionate release. “At the end of the day, we could release half of the prisoners but if we still have community spread, it would still be getting into the prisons.” Evers emphasized the need to “do our job outside of these institutions” and break the cycle of virus transmission at the community level.
But the populations of Wisconsin’s prisons are highly concentrated – often exceeding one thousand prisoners in a single facility. And in some rural areas, a prison may hold one of the largest populations in the county. While Evers remarked that “we absolutely try everything we can to stop the virus from spreading to our prison population,” the DOC cannot adequately provide one key public health guideline: physical distancing.
The state’s overcrowded prisons – with double bedded cells, barracks style areas, and limited opportunities for quarantine – makes physical distancing difficult in many facilities, if not impossible. As a former prisoner at Taycheedah told reporters, “I could reach up and reach the person above me and I could reach across and reach the bunk next to me… My arm is not six feet.”
The Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with other organizations, has advocated for compassionate release since March. “An outbreak of COVID-19 in our prisons overburdens our hospitals, endangers public health, and could claim the lives of thousands of people,” the ACLU stated in a recent call to action. “Remember, people who are in prison will need treatment at their local public hospital, many of which are already overwhelmed with increasing rates of hospitalizations due to COVID-19.” Echoing the advice of activists, the authors of an article in The Journal of American Medical Association stated that the safest response to COVID-19 in prisons and jails was to significantly reduce the incarcerated population.
From the perspective of many prisoners, the DOC has appeared to have no real plan – beyond the most basic precautionary tactics – to deal with a surge of infections. “I don’t think that the people that drew this plan up even thought about this at all,” a prisoner at Prairie du Chien told the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC Milwaukee). “You know why[,] because they don’t listen to their workers on the front line or the inmates.”
As this statement implies, prisoners are not the only ones within the prison system that are critical of the DOC’s handling of the pandemic. As a guard at Racine told reporters, “It’s a complete mishmash of unorganized chaos.”
Nearly 2,000 DOC employees have contracted the virus. Prior to the pandemic, the DOC was already experiencing staffing issues: a report by the Forum for Understanding Prisons (FFUP) revealed a high turnover rate – 17.8% to 26.1% annually – for DOC guards in a recent five year period. With current staffing shortages, the DOC allows staff exposed to the virus to return to work if “an employee belongs to a group with significant staffing shortages.”
On November 1, Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution (PDCI) had zero COVID-19 cases. A month later, over 400 prisoners – about 80% of the entire prison population – had been infected with the virus. The design capacity of PDCI is only 326 prisoners, but as of November 27, there were 500 prisoners (53% over capacity). “Generally, inmates are housed in the facility four to a room,” a representative from the DOC media team stated. “There is also a barracks-type area.”
The outbreak at PDCI, as of December 3, accounted for 36% of the total cases in Crawford County, a predominantly rural area. Before the recent outbreak at PDCI, the last comprehensive testing of prisoners was completed in July.
Prisoners have reported that staff were not wearing masks at PDCI as early as August, and the reports continued into October. One prisoner made multiple appeals to the DOC office in Madison, documenting dates and times when maintenance staff were not wearing protective equipment. Both appeals were dismissed.
“[T]here have been numerous complaints by various inmates where indisputable video evidence has been introduced,” the prisoner wrote to IWOC, “and the administration here at PDCI refuses to take action… Something has to be done!! People are dying and that number will continue to rise as long as the DOC refuses to protect us.” Despite the outbreak, prisoners were, according to another captive, “being forced to work in the kitchen, laundry and other areas.”
As of November 30, three prisoners had been hospitalized, and one of those prisoners died at a hospital in La Crosse. While the DOC has reported a total of 14 COVID-19 related prisoner deaths, the location and time of each death has not been specified. Additionally, the DOC has stated that “a death will only be considered a COVID-19 Related Death if a local medical examiner/coroner makes the determination.”
In response to prisoner reports of medical neglect, sanitation policies, and showering protocols, IWOC Milwaukee has organized a “phone zap,” asking the warden at PDCI to re-evaluate current policies in response to the mass outbreak at the prison.
Top image: Protesters outside the governor’s mansion on Nov. 24. Courtesy: EXPO (EX-Incarcerated People Organizing).
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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