In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, gatherings of ten people or more in confined spaces are forbidden in Wisconsin. But, that ban doesn’t apply to state prisons.
David Liners is the state director of WISDOM, a coalition of groups that advocate for criminal justice reform. Liners says COVID-19 could spread rapidly throughout Wisconsin’s prisons.
“In terms of proximity of people to each other, and inability to escape each other, it’s not unlike a cruise ship or a nursing home in that it’s a very closed atmosphere and infectious diseases can spread really quickly,” Liner says.
In a worst-case scenario, doctors may have to choose how to allocate ventilators, which are in short supply. In the United States, there are fewer than 100,000 such devices.
With more patients requiring oxygen than ventilators to provide it, Italian doctors have already had to choose who lives and who dies. If Wisconsin doctors have to make similar decisions, Liners thinks incarcerated persons could be among the last groups to be treated.
“My fear is that [hospitals] will say there’s no room at the inn,” Liner says. “I hope I’m wrong, but at the same time I can imagine [the outcry] if the ICU is filled with people from the prison and then other citizens get sick and they’ve no place to go. So, I think it’s something we have to be looking at right now and, again, it’s why we need to get this concentration of people deconcentrated as quickly as we can.
In an effort to reduce the concentration of prisoners in Wisconsin, WISDOM is petitioning Governor Evers to take “measures to dramatically reduce the prison population.”
“WISDOM is calling on the Governor to first of all do a review of everybody over 65 and everybody over 50 with a significant health condition and work to get them out. If they go through the compassionate release process [that’s] great, if he has to use extraordinary measures like commuting sentences, so be it,” Liner says. “And then, at the same time, [we want him to] look at the people who are going to be getting out in the next few months anyhow, and move them out faster. Anything to create some space.”
In an email to WORT earlier today, Department of Corrections spokesperson Anna Neal confirmed that there are no known positive cases of COVID-19 for adults in custody at the DOC’s 37 facilities.
The Wisconsin State Journal, however, reports that as of yesterday, three Department of Corrections employees have tested positive for the virus so far.
On Monday, the State halted all new admissions to state prisons, meaning that individuals sentenced to prison will be held in county jails.
Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney says that order could put greater strain on the jail, which isn’t well-equipped to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak.
“Because of the nature of our county jails, and the fact that here in Dane County there’s not a medical unit, there’s not a hospital bed, there’s no way to isolate an individual without putting them into solitary confinement, it’s very difficult for us to be prepared when COVID-19 appears within our jail,” Mahoney says.
Still, Mahoney says the jail is working to reduce its population. That means officers may take discretionary measures to prevent those charged with misdemeanors from entering the jail.
“An intoxicated person on the street who’s a nuisance, as an example, is diverted to somebody who can care for that individual until they sober up, and then sometime in the future they deal with their charge,” Mahoney notes. “So, it really begins at time of arrest, and [we’re] putting some more effort into talking about the benefits of alternatives to incarceration, which have always been out there, but I think they’re being examined and accepted a little more in the past several months.”
Due to these measures, Mahoney says the jail’s population has dropped from the “high seven-hundreds” to 549 today.
In a press release today, the Dane County Jail announced it has placed 8 inmates in quarantine after they displayed fevers, and is isolating 9 more inmates from the general population.
At time of broadcast, COVID-19 tests for these individuals were pending.