Most people will be prohibited from visiting state prisons as a precautionary measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
The DOC in a statement Friday said all state prison visits with the exception of professional visits are temporarily suspended.
"We take our responsibility to protect staff and persons in our care very seriously, and out of an abundance of caution are taking actions to minimize the risk of bringing COVID-19 into facilities," the statement said.
The suspension applies to DOC's more than 30 prison facilities across the state.
Meanwhile, the Dane County Jail suspended all visitation except for attorney visits until April 1, the county's Sheriff's Office said. All in-jail programming and inmate work release was also put on hold.
The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office also decided to temporarily change its jail's visitation practices. It suspended contact visits with attorneys, but attorneys can still use "booths equipped for non-contact" to visit their clients at the jail, the Sheriff's Office said. Public visitation at the Milwaukee County Jail happens through video, so that practice remains unchanged.
The decisions to freeze visits come as other government institutions and business in Wisconsin and across the nation are putting plans in place to mitigate COVID-19's spread.
On Thursday, Gov. Tony Evers declared a state of emergency in light of COVID-19, which has been declared a pandemic. Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the agency largely responsible for the state's approach to combat the virus, said the agency is working closely with DOC to determine the ramifications for correctional institutions in Wisconsin, which house more than 22,000 inmates.
Currently, no staff or inmates in Wisconsin have tested positive for COVID-19. But criminal justice advocates are still concerned about the potential fallout if officials don't take adequate measures to prevent the proliferation of the virus at state prisons.
"The consequences would be many individuals within prison possibly infected," said Sean Wilson, statewide organizer for the ACLU's Wisconsin Campaign for Smart Justice. "We have a crisis on our hands, we may not have the capacity to treat these folks."
Wilson said he and the ACLU have urged DOC Secretary Kevin Carr to develop evidence-based, proactive plans for the management of the coronavirus within the DOC. Wilson said it's especially important that DOC has a plan because the prison population is vulnerable to the virus due to inmates being housed in close quarters and many of them in poor health.
Wilson said he wants the DOC to educate both staff and inmates on ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as proper hand washing and social distancing to the extent they can. If any inmates contract the disease, he said, they should be properly isolated.
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