James Morgan spent more than a decade in prison. He is now the lead peer support specialist at the Madison Urban Ministry where he helps formerly incarcerated people re-integrate into the community.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, he’s been getting emails and phone calls from people serving time in state prisons. Here’s a recent one.
“Let me give you a quick quote here from a letter I just received,” Morgan said. “‘The lack of preventative treatment from systemic overcrowding and under-staffing is going to be the final nails in our coffins. Nobody in the Wisconsin system was sentenced to death. Moreover, those of us with disabilities should be provided with services provided for under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The bottom line is there has got to be a remedy under the law for what is about to happen.'”
“He went on to share some things that are happening at that particular institution and some of the steps the DOC has taken,” Morgan continued. “A lot of those are, for the guys, hopeless at best from where they’re sitting at.”
Morgan’s wife, Rachel Kincaide, is the president of MOSES, the Dane county chapter of the prison reform group WISDOM. She says the pandemic has had a particularly severe impact on the men held at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage.
“I got reports that they don’t see staff in guard in masks and gloves. The conditions are pretty terrible because, particularly at Columbia, they’re on lock-down and they’ve been on lock-down or restricted movement for so long. This is really hard on them. But almost all of the people that I’m in communication with liken their situation to being on death row,” she said. “Generally they’re the people who are doing the cleaning and the guards aren’t doing the cleaning. So when they get out for their once-a-week shower they go into a really filthy, nasty environment. It’s not clean, it’s unsanitary. They say they’re getting one small bar of soap every 15 days and they’re not practicing social distancing at all. No masks, no gloves; people are concerned. And as we know, there have been confirmed cases at numerous facilities. Those are the ones we have confirmed, anyway.
Both Kincaide and Morgan say the lock-down at Columbia and measures being taken at other prisons in response to the pandemic highlight the need for more comprehensive reform of the state’s prison system.
“And here’s an example. And this again is a quote from one of the guys in prison,” Morgan said. “‘As the reality of the coronavirus looms large over all prisons, they are becoming large petri dishes destined to become death camps that will quickly overcome healthcare measures. Recognizing that fact, Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland and many other cities have released many hundreds and states have released many thousands and other countries have recently release tens of thousands of captives. Evers, Carr and Tate need to be brought to realize that captives are invariably, by virtue of their overcrowded environment, more at risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 and that every captive they release greatly reduces that risk. Releasing a thousand or two would be a preservation of life.'”
“So it’s not like these guys aren’t thinking about this situation, this circumstance and what it potentially means should we have an uncontrollable spread of this disease in one of these institutions,” Morgan said. “So it’s not just the actual physical conditions; it’s the mental and emotional health of individuals who are incarcerated. So that has to be discussed and then see if they would be willing to begin to put into place the necessary changes and structures that’ll be necessary to ensure that we all have equal access to good healthcare.”
It’s certainly not clear whether or not the measures the state is implementing to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons will lead to more sweeping reforms. But David Liners of WISDOM says he’s hopeful it will prompt state policy makers to reconsider plans to build a new prison near Green Bay and decide instead to release people who are sick and have already served the majority of their sentences.
“If this crisis can demonstrate that we don’t need to have so many people in prison and we can get the prison population reduced and not immediately reinflated, it’s going to make that campaign a whole lot easier,” he said.