In-person visits at state prisons will resume July 6, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections announced Monday.
All prison visits except those from inmates’ attorneys and other professionals have been suspended since March 13, 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Video visitation was still an option.
“We are very happy to again offer in-person visits,” DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said. “With COVID-19 infection numbers down and vaccination rates up, those in our care and their loved ones can again enjoy each other’s company face to face.”
If COVID-19 cases in a prison or the surrounding community start to rise, in-person visitation may be shut down for that facility, the agency said.
Nearly 11,000 of the state’s roughly 19,400 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic, and 32 prisoners have died from the disease.
But infections have remained low throughout 2021, and more inmates are getting vaccinated every day.
On Friday, there were only 11 active cases across the state’s more than 30 facilities, according to the DOC’s COVID-19 data dashboard.
As of May 30, the most recent date for which data were available, 57% of the state prison population was fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Another 8.2% were partially vaccinated.
“Vaccination is an incredible tool against COVID-19,” Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said.
Timberlake said the vaccination levels allow “in-person visitation to resume safely,” with precautions.
The department will be modifying visitation rooms to allow for physical distancing; requiring masks for everyone ages 2 and up, including vaccinated individuals; screening visitors for COVID-19 symptoms, including a temperature check; increasing cleaning in visitation areas; and prohibiting visitors and inmates from sharing drinks. Visitors do not need to be vaccinated but must follow the rules at each facility, including the mask requirement.
Due to an anticipated high demand and a decrease in visiting room capacity to accommodate social distancing, visits will be limited at first but officials hope to allow two in-person visits a week for each inmate.
Video visits and two free phone calls a week will still be available until the facilities return to pre-pandemic operations, the DOC said.
Inmates and visitors can begin scheduling face-to-face meetings June 16. The visits need to be scheduled at least two days in advance and can include up to three approved visitors.
The DOC is also starting to resume work release, volunteer and religious visits, and other programming, but the timelines will vary by facility.
Fave 5: Emily Hamer picks her most impactful stories of 2020
Wisconsin State Journal reporter Emily Hamer's coverage of the protests in Madison this summer and of the criminal justice system is the work she thinks made the largest impact this year.
As many focused on the nighttime destruction that sometimes followed local protests against racism and brutality this summer, some people missed the passion and meaning behind the movement. One of Hamer's favorite stories was one that focused on how Madison's youth were a driving force of the nighttime protests that formed organically. They called their movement "a revolution." An honorable mention: 'Celebration of life': Madison protesters honor Breonna Taylor with birthday party.
Another impactful story revealed prosecutors can use small mistakes that aren't themselves crimes — such as drinking one beer, walking into a liquor store or forgetting a court date — to pressure defendants into pleading guilty.
Hamer was also the first to report that COVID-19-related deaths occurred in the Wisconsin prison system, along with the first to report when the Wisconsin Department of Corrections changed course and decided to disclose the deaths.
And before COVID-19 cases exploded in the prison system, a story in May showed that Wisconsin's largest prison was unprepared for the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Guards and inmates saw many ways the virus could breach the walls of their facility and spread unabated. Now, more than seven months later, the prison has had the largest COVID-19 outbreak of any state prison, with more than 950 total cases among inmates.
Madison's youth came together organically this summer to protest against racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd.
This story focused on the nuance behind the destruction that happened in Downtown Madison this summer. Most protesters tried for peace.
Drinking one beer, walking into a liquor store, forgetting a court date — actions that aren't themselves crimes can yield felony charges.
For more than a month, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections refused to disclose how many inmates had died from COVID-19.
This story showed that Wisconsin's largest prison was unprepared for the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.