In the past year, COVID-19 has infected more than half of Wisconsin’s overall inmate population, and the infection rate in correctional facilities is five times higher than the state average. That’s according to a recent analysis from investigative outlet Wisconsin Watch.
Protesters and advocacy groups have spent months pushing Wisconsin’s lawmakers to address the crisis. Then, last month, the Department of Health Services announced that prisoners would be among the next groups to be vaccinated for COVID-19 starting March 1st.
Earlier today, the state’s Republican-controlled Senate voted to shut down that plan.
Under Senate Bill 8, the DHS would be barred from prioritizing prisoners during the vaccine rollout process. Instead, prisoners would receive the vaccine based on age group.
Proponents argue that the state’s vaccine supply should be allocated to other at-risk groups first.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican from Racine, is one of the bill’s sponsors. During the Senate’s floor session today, he used the rampant spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons as a reason not to prioritize vaccinating inmates.
“My understanding is that over half of our inmates have had COVID and have the antibodies already,” he said. “In addition to that — they’re in a confined, isolated situation due to their confinement, which leaves them less opportunity to be exposed. And we’ve already dealt with the issue with our prison guards, the ones who would bring the virus in, because they’re all being vaccinated.”
According to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative, and countless other public health reports, the confined, isolated nature of prisons makes them particularly susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks.
As to reinfections rates — one U.K. based study found that those who have been infected with COVID-19 have an 83% reduced likelihood to contract the virus for at least 5 months.
And guards and prison workers aren’t the only people who can bring COVID-19 into facilities: transferring inmates, who may be carrying the virus, is a fairly common practice. Even now, planned facility closures at the Waupun Correctional Facility are forcing a mass transfer of about 220 prisoners.
Chris Larson, a Democratic Senator from Milwaukee, said the bill was an attempt by the state’s Republicans to politicize Wisconsin’s public health response to the pandemic.
“This is something where we have partisans intervening in the distribution of vaccines,” he said.
Larson attempted to amend the bill on the floor to nullify most of the original language, but that proposal was shot down 20-12. Partisan issues aside, he said that the bill opened the state up to potential lawsuits for mistreating inmates.
“There’s, as far back as 1967, a Supreme Court recognition that deliberate interference in the serious medical needs of an incarcerated person could constitute ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ under the eighth amendment,” Larson told lawmakers.
Janet Bewley, the senate’s democratic minority leader, argued that denying inmates access to vaccine doses essentially adds additional punishments to their existing sentences.
“Just because someone is imprisoned does not mean that they are no longer a human body that God has instructed us to care for,” she said. “To deny them what we would give to anyone else says that, not only do we want to punish them for their crime…we want to add a new punishment which says that ‘We will deny you the care you would be eligible to receive elsewhere.’”
The bill now heads to the State Assembly for approval. If it passes that chamber, which is also held by Republicans, it will then go to Governor Tony Evers’ desk, where it could be vetoed.
It was a packed day for the Republican-led state Senate — as they also approved a measure that would prohibit government officials from mandating vaccines for employees and a bill that would prohibit local health officials from forbidding gatherings in churches.
They also passed a bill that would begin the process for returning state employees to work.
State lawmakers also approved a proposed bill that will grant more than half a billion dollars in tax breaks to businesses who received loans from the Payroll Protection Program (PPP).
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, at least eight state lawmakers also own businesses that will benefit from those tax breaks. Madison Representative Francesca Hong, whose restaurant Morris Ramen received PPP loans, recused herself from the vote, citing a potential conflict of interest.
Thanks to Wisconsin Eye for providing the audio for this story.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that eight, not nine, state legislators stand to benefit from PPP tax aids