Wisconsin has received an F+ grade from the national American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Policy Initiative for its handling of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis in prisons, according to a report released Thursday.
The report analyzed all states’ responses to the pandemic in jails and prisons. Nine states received D grades. The rest, except for Illinois, which was not graded because of pending litigation, received F grades.
“This report confirms what we already know to be true: Wisconsin has not done nearly enough to combat the spread of COVID-19 in our jails and prisons,” Sean Wilson, Smart Justice Statewide Organizer for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said in a statement.
Wisconsin prisons have had 271 cases of COVID-19 among inmates as of Thursday, according to the state Department of Corrections. Of those, 262 inmates have recovered from the virus, one person has been released from custody, and eight prisoners are currently fighting the virus.
Sixty-six DOC staff members have tested positive, and 65 of them have recovered, according to DOC. One case is still active.
Of DOC’s 37 adult facilities, nine prisons have had positive cases, with the vast majority at Waupun Correctional Institution. A mass testing initiative that was started with the help of the National Guard revealed a massive outbreak at Waupun in May. According to DOC data updated Thursday, Waupun has had a total of 227 cases.
DOC is partway through testing its entire inmate and staff population. As of Thursday, 13,810 of DOC’s roughly 22,000 adult inmates had been tested.
In a Thursday statement, DOC spokesman John Beard highlighted that almost all prisoners have recovered.
“While we appreciate the ACLU’s work, the most important thing on which we are grading our agency is the health and safety of our staff and those in our care,” Beard said. “And the numbers — 14,000 tests administered and nine active cases among persons in our care and staff combined, as of this afternoon — show we’ve had some success on that front.”
The ACLU graded states based on several measures including testing, whether masks were given out, data availability, prison and jail population reductions, and orders from governors or correctional departments related to halting jail admissions or releasing inmates.
Points were given out based on the state’s performance on each measure. The largest chunk of points available were for significantly decreasing prison and jail populations. Another large chunk came from statewide orders to halt jail admissions or to release vulnerable prisoners and those nearing the end of their sentences — which most states did not do.
Wisconsin lost points because Gov. Tony Evers did not issue orders to release prisoners or stop jail admissions. On March 23, Evers halted prison admissions, but ACLU spokeswoman Alyssa Mauk said that action did not count in the report because it was for prisons, not jails. Prison admissions and transfers resumed June 1, with 14-day quarantines required for inmates who move between facilities.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Dane County Jail has nearly halved its inmate population through collaboration with police, court commissioners, judges, prosecutors and DOC. The jail also tested the entirety of its inmate and staff population.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said Wednesday that there are eight individuals in the jail who are still testing positive for COVID-19, some of them asymptomatic. Each has a nurse who is tracking them and testing them twice a day.
“We are releasing those that can be and caring for those that can’t,” Mahoney said.
Wisconsin also lost points for not providing a detailed breakdown of its data on the virus in prisons. DOC gives a daily update on COVID-19 cases among prisoners and staff — which it gained some points for — but that data is not broken down by race, the ACLU report notes.
Wisconsin gained partial points for distributing masks to staff and prisoners, and for committing to testing its entire prison population.
Prisoners in the state have complained of a slow response from DOC and inconsistent cleaning and social distancing practices. They’ve also said that not all guards wear masks, putting them at risk.
DOC has required all staff to wear face masks at 13 of its 37 facilities.
Among other measures DOC has taken to address the crisis are: releasing more than 1,600 inmates, giving prisoners masks, enhancing cleaning efforts, locking down prisons with positive cases, quarantining individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19, suspending work release and implementing social distancing wherever possible.
But Wilson, the ACLU organizer, said that’s not enough given the gravity of the coronavirus emergency.
“Wisconsin has repeatedly neglected to release vulnerable people from custody, which has endangered the health of incarcerated people, corrections staff, and members of surrounding communities,” Wilson said. “We encourage the governor and Department of Corrections to take immediate action to release vulnerable people and stop this public health catastrophe.”
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