The Wisconsin Department of Corrections is planning to release more than 1,200 inmates from DOC facilities throughout the state. The move, an attempt to quell the spread of COVID-19, will cut down on the state’s overcrowded correctional facilities.
The decision to release the inmates is the latest in a series of actions designed to curb the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state’s correctional facilities. Speaking with WisconsinEye, Wisconsin DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said that the agency was prepared for the outbreak.
“The department of corrections has had pandemic plans that are continuously updated for many years, prior to my arrival,” Carr said. “We have plans that tend to cover almost every contingency that we need to be prepared to deal with.”
Approximately 1100 of the inmates being released are incarcerated on non-violent misdemeanor revocation holds. That’s when someone is sent back to prison for violating parole or being accused of doing so.
David Liners is the Statewide Coordinator for WISDOM, a criminal justice reform group that advocated the release of state inmates held on revocation holds. According to Liners, revocation holds can be applied to a broad number of non-violent offenses.
“You can be sent back to prison for violating one of those [parole] rules, even if you haven’t committed a new crime. There are people who get sent back to prison for missing meetings with their parole officers, or for failing a drug test. There’s a million reasons for why people can get sent back for violating any of the rules of supervision,” said Liners.
Liners and WISDOM are also pushing for even further measures to help cut down on the state’s prison and jail population, including the immediate release of anyone suffering from serious health conditions. Liners says the issue is more important now than ever.
“This really is an emergency for all of us and it’s especially an emergency for people who are confined in our prisons,” Liners said. “And we really need the governor to take bold action to be sure we don’t kill a lot of people. Thank God in Wisconsin we don’t have a legal death penalty, I just hope we don’t have a de facto death penalty.”
In March, the Department of Corrections indefinitely suspended family visits and work release programs, to prevent outside contamination coming into jails. It has also suspended all non-essential employee travel.
Despite these measures, seven employees in state-run jails have been infected with COVID-19. That number does not include those in county jails. And according to the Dane County Sheriff’s office, four Sheriff’s Deputies working in the Dane County Jail have reportedly tested positive for the virus.
According to Elise Schaffer, public information officer for the Dane County Sheriff’s office, the Dane County Jail has implemented new measures to keep jail staff from spreading COVID-19 to the county’s inmates. That includes devices that use ultraviolet radiation to sanitize surfaces.
“We have on-loan some Skytron UV emitters that are helping sanitize areas. All of our deputies are using personal protection equipment. If we do have an inmate that does exhibit symptoms, they’re separated from the general population immediately,” Schaffer said.
In a press release issued earlier today, the Dane County Sheriff’s office confirmed a third COVID case among inmates in the county jail. According to the release, the man is currently in isolation while his cell is being cleaned and sanitized.
The two previous inmates to be diagnosed with the illness have both made full recoveries. One was released after a diagnosis and the other was monitored by jail officers until symptoms subsided, at which point they were returned to the jail’s general population.