The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a union that advocates for people who work while incarcerated, said in a statement today that one person had died in the Columbia Correctional Institution.
They said that the death was rumored to be by suicide.
The prison, located in the city of Portage, entered a state of lockdown in November after three staff members were assaulted by inmates in as many weeks.
This meant that some of the inmates’ privileges were severely restricted or rescinded entirely. According to Jacob Glicklich, a representative of the Committee, these conditions can be very repressive.
“Incarcerated people are kept within cells, they tend to get food which is cold and generally of substandard quality,” Glicklich says. “[They don’t have] access to rec, what programming exists, [or] showers, [and] regular phone access disappears, so during a time of increased stress [they] aren’t able to contact family.”
Glicklich says they have not been able to confirm whether or not the inmate died by suicide.
Kimberly Wolf, a woman from Rhinelander whose fiance, Monte Bartelt, has been imprisoned in Columbia since 2014, says that the lockdowns cut off communication between them.”
“At the beginning I could talk to him every day. I went there to see him twice a week. We had a lot of communication. Then, [after] the lockdown, everything just went downhill,” Wolf says.
Wolf also confirmed a recent death at Columbia Correctional Institution, but says she is not aware of the cause.
On December 6, two days after the alleged death, the Department of Corrections told WKOW that some lockdown restrictions had been lifted.
According to the Department, inmates could now visit with family and friends, receive hot meals, and use the phones. The institution isolated the inmates responsible for the assaults of staff. They also arrested an officer after an excessive force and possible misconduct investigation. That investigation is pending.
However, the lockdown is still ongoing. Ed Wall, the former Secretary of Corrections at the Wisconsin Department of Justice, says that there could be many reasons for this.
“Lockdowns are conducted for a variety of reasons and the lockdown may not be surrounding just one incident. There may be intelligence or information indicating that there may be future or further assaults that they’re trying to track down,” Wall says. “Maybe [they’re] trying to identify the inmates behind it so they can either be transferred or be put into a situation where they wouldn’t be able to cause any harm.”
This current lockdown began more than a month ago, on November fourth. The Columbia Correctional Institution also entered a lockdown last January, which lasted about a month. Authorities searched the prison for potential contraband. Glicklich says that long lockdowns can be a health hazard, especially since Columbia inmates have died by suicide in the past.
“The case I’m most directly familiar with, because I’m connected with the family, was a young man that committed suicide in Columbia when he was in solitary confinement in September of the last year. Imposition of solitary confinement and long-term restrictions has also been a factor. Anything that expands stress [can be a factor],” Glicklich says.
Editor’s note: The Department of Corrections confirmed the death of an inmate in an email to WORT after this story was aired. The DOC did not provide further details, citing an ongoing investigation into the death.