By Gretchen Schuldt
The state's prison population is growing again after a long decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The number of adults incarcerated in state facilities declined to 19,381 on May 14, down significantly from the June 2019 level of almost 23,600 reported by the Wisconsin Policy Forum in its 2021-23 state budget brief.
At the height of the outbreak DOC basically closed its doors to new inmates, shoving the problem of housing them downstream to local jails. And courts shut down or dramatically reduced operations, which also reduced the flow of inmates to prison.
Then, this spring, prisons began accepting people again. The prison population ticked upward the week of May 21 and has increased every week since, according to Department of Corrections data. On Sept. 24, 20,132 people were incarcerated in the state's adult facilities.
Current inmate numbers are likely to increase further as courts resume normal operations and more people are sentenced.
Kenneth Gray was at a house where he sold cocaine when he took a silver gun from his pocket, pulled the trigger once, and killed a man.
It was Dec. 30, 1995. Gray was 14 years old.
The victim was an adult drug dealer angry that young Gray was working in a Milwaukee neighborhood the man considered his own.
Gray, still in prison, now is 40. He has been incarcerated for almost twice as many years as he was alive when he committed his crime. His 30-year sentence ends in 2026. He is hoping to be paroled before then.
Here is what then-Assistant District Attorney Carol Kraft said in 1996 at Gray's sentencing for first-degree reckless homicide. Gray was 15.
He, up until he became involved in the drug trafficking...by all the information that I had, wasn't the type of child who had involved himself in these kind of activities and who would have been expected or – I guess one would have predicted to become involved in the events that occurred that day....
Unlike so many people we see, who at the age he came to the criminal justice system have long rap sheets, have many contacts with the police, Mr. Gray was not one of those people. Mr. Gray also doesn't appear to have come from a family where this would have been expected. And I'm sure that this is probably difficult for his mother who has supported him through this as anyone.
Gray's prison life hasn't been smooth. He's had dozens of disciplinary infractions, some of them serious. He's been transferred back and forth between institutions. But now, he says, he wants to get out and go to college, maybe get his pilot's license. He likes to write, and he wrote about his experiences for WJI. He talks about his mandatory release date in the piece below. That is a presumptive parole date that come two-thirds of the way through a prison sentence. The Department of Corrections, however, can decide to keep a person in its care beyond that date.
By Kenneth Gray
Here I sit, 4½ years past my mandatory release date (19 July 2016). This is after I've served 22 years of a 30-year sentence that was given to me at the age of 15 years old.
The judge forecast I'd be released early, before 20-year mark MR set by legislation, based upon overcrowdedness of the prison as well as my age. However, the Wisconsin Parole Commission has had other ideas.
When I was first locked up, after juvie and being waived into adult court, I was sent back to Juvie Hall because I was too young to be shipped to the Big House. There I spent 10 months in segregation because by law I was an "adult," yet couldn't be in the general population with other adults. Once I turned sweet 16, off to prison I went.
I have committed 'violations of trust' against the community, its people, and my family with utter disregard for any consequence.
And for that reason I'm on this bus, with this seeming only one-way ticket to prison. There were four of us all under the age of 21. We all possessed a certain level of trepidation. We were "fresh meat," first-timers like me. Others had small stints in juvie for a couple months, but this trip here we all "kissed the baby."
By Gretchen Schuldt
The number of COVID-19 cases reported in Wisconsin state prisons soared by 1,033 cases last week, the biggest one-week increase since the outbreak began, Department of Corrections figures show.
The total number of cases reported rose from 3,296 on Oct. 23 to 4,329 on Friday, Oct. 30, a 31% jump, the figures show.
Five prisons reported more than 100 additional cases in a single week. Those prisons were Waupun, Stanley, Jackson, Dodge, and Green Bay Correctional Institutions.
Four facilities, including Taycheedah Correctional Institution, the state's major women's prison, reported their first cases. The other three were McNaughton Correctional Center, Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility, and the Thompson Correctional Center.
Just seven of DOC's 37 facilities did not report any COVID cases as of Friday. They are the Flambeau Correctional Center, The Grow Academy (juvenile), Kenosha Correctional Center, Oregon Correctional Center, Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution, Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center, and the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility.
The Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution has the most total cases reported overall – 872 – but reported no new cases last week.
Gov. Tony Evers has been sharply criticized by advocates for his failure to his powers as governor to release low-risk offenders during the pandemic.
Facilities reporting increases in COVID-19 cases
By Gretchen Schuldt
The number of positive coronavirus cases among people incarcerated in state prisons jumped by 662 last week, the largest one-week increase since those cases began to surge in August.
There were a cumulative total of 2,274 coronavirus-positive tests in as of Friday, a 41% increase from the 1,612 cumulative cases reported just a week earlier.
Facilities reporting increases in COVID last week are below. The first column shows the total number of cases reported as of Oct. 2 and the second column shows the total cases reported as of Oct. 9. The final column shows the one-week change.
The figures show there is a growing outbreak at Oshkosh Correctional Institution and another potential outbreak at Columbia Correctional Institution. Outbreaks continued at Kettle Moraine and Dodge Correctional Institutions.
Prisons reporting increases in COVID cases during the week ending Oct. 9
Gov. Tony Evers has fallen conspicuously silent on the issue of coronavirus infections among incarcerated people and staff – 577 prison staff members have tested positive and has done little to reduce prison crowding, which makes the coronavirus more likely to spread. Adult prisons are about 19% over design capacity.
In July, WISDOM, a state social justice organization, called on Evers to take specific steps to reduce crowding.
About 40% of people incarcerated at the Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution had active coronavirus cases as of Monday, according to Department of Corrections figures.
There were 437 active cases in the prisons' inmate population of 1,104 as of Friday.
The Oshkosh Correctional Institution reports another major outbreak with 341 active cases, according to the figures. The prison population was 1,964 on Friday, so about 17% of the inmate population had active coronavirus cases.
Overall, there have been 1,612 positive coronavirus tests in state prisons since the beginning of the pandemic. Those figures include 560 positive tests at Kettle Moraine and 360 at Oshkosh, the two highest numbers in the prison system. Some people who were ill have recovered. Some are no longer in prison.
Both Kettle Moraine and Oshkosh are medium security and both are significantly overcrowded.
"There are so many infected they have no clue what to do," an Oshkosh inmate wrote.
Gov. Tony Evers has significant power to reduce prison crowding, but has not used it.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Updated 9/20/2020 to include a response from the Department of Corrections.
As the number of COVID-19 cases in state prisons soars past 1,000, the Department of Corrections has begun requiring incarcerated people to pay for the masks used to slow the spread of the disease, according to inmates and their loved ones.
"We here...have been informed that...we will be required to purchase our own face masks, that the DOC will no longer provide them and certainly not for free," one inmate wrote. "We will now be required to purchase a single mask for $2.50 (an allegedly one size fits all)."
DOC confirmed the purchase plan for those wanting or needing more than three masks.
The agency has provided at least three washable masks to each incarcerated person since April, a DOC spokesperson said in an email.
"There is a plan to offer extra cotton face coverings available for purchase, if those in our care want more than the three," said the spokesperson, who did not identify himself or herself.
"But there will be a limit of seven. These could be purchased by those in our care, or family members could purchase for them."
Some 1,053 prison inmates and 81 staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Friday.
While $2.50 may not sound like much, some inmates simply have no money, others have financial obligations such as victim restitution or court surcharges, and others have extremely low-paying prison jobs.
"Nothing in this policy makes any provision, that I am aware of, for the many prisoners who are indigent and unable to purchase these masks (of whom their are many),"the inmate wrote.
"The mask must be purchased from the 'approved vendors'...all of which are notorious for hugely marking up the prices of all of its products...." the inmate said.
Another inmate said, as have others, that his institution is not removing from the general population incarcerated people who test positive for coronavirus.
The inmate said a nurse told him not to worry about getting tested because "staff was not moving anyone that tests positive. I'm like, 'WHAT!' I said 'Well then, if you're not going to keep inmates that have tested positive separated from the inmates that aren't sick, what is the purpose for all the testing?!' She said, 'I don't know!'"
By Gretchen Schuldt
The number of positive coronavirus cases continues to surge in Wisconsin state prisons and on Friday was up 70% since Aug. 21, when case numbers started their steep climb.
There were 907 positive coronavirus cases in the prison system as of Friday, Sept. 11, up 373 since Aug. 21, when there were 534 cases.
The number Friday was up 75, or 9%, from a week earlier, when there were 832 recorded cases, according to Department of Corrections figures. The biggest one-week increases were at Dodge Correctional Institution (up 39, to 119) and Racine Correctional Institution (up 25, to 109).
There also have been 244 positive coronavirus cases of DOC staff members.
David Liners, state director of WISDOM, a state social justice organization, urged members of the public Monday to contact their legislators about the crisis.
"Help us get the governor's attention," he said in an email.
WISDOM in July recommended that Gov. Tony Evers take several actions to reduce prison populations including:
"As of Sept. 14, he has not done anything," Liners wrote. "He has not even made a single public statement of his concern."
Meanwhile, a person incarcerated in a facility with an outbreak attributed it, at least in part, to a coronavirus-infected person who was transferred there.
"He was not tested prior to being moved here..." the inmate wrote. "He has been on this unit infecting people. This young man was asymptomatic. Last night they moved the young man back to...quarantine. However, the man the kid was in with was not placed on quarantine. He was left on the unit to possibly infect more people here...."
He continued: "There is no further testing going to be done. The HSU (Health Services Unit) is doing temperature checks and asking if the person is experiencing symptoms. So if the inmate does not-self report because he doesn't want to go to quarantine, there is no way for them to know in a timely manner and in the case of the young man, who was asymptomatic, the temperature checks would not have revealed anything. So the long and short of it is that there is no way they can stop the spread with the current level of 'health' care the prison is providing."
WJI is not naming the institution to protect the identities of the writer.
Institutions still reporting no cases are Copper Lake/Lincoln Hills School, Flambeau Correctional Center, Fox Lake Correctional Institution, Grow Academy, John C. Burke Correctional Center, Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution, McNaughton Correctional Center, Oakhill Correctional Institution, Oshkosh Correctional Institution, Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution, Robert E. Ellsworth Correctional Center, Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center, Stanley Correctional Institution, Taycheedah Correctional Institution, Thompson Correctional Center, Winnebago Correctional Center, and Wisconsin Secure Program Facility.
By Gretchen Schuldt
The number of positive coronavirus cases in the state prison system jumped by 56%, in just two weeks, Department of Corrections figures show.
There were 534 positive cases on Aug. 21 and 832 cases on Friday, Sept. 4, an increase of 298, the figures show.
The largest increase was recorded at Green Bay Correctional Institution. There were 185 incarcerated men who tested positive as of Aug. 21 and 270 positives on Friday, up 85.
Other significant increases were recorded at the Racine Correctional Institution (up 66, from 18 to 84), Dodge Correctional Institution (up 55, from 25 to 80), New Lisbon Correctional Institution (up 41, from 8 to 49), Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution (up 30, from 7 to 37), and the Milwaukee Women's Center, up 17, from 3 to 20.
"For a while I was at least able to say the staff here is at least keeping us fed but things have gotten so bad that today everything came to a head!!" one Green Bay inmate wrote. For the past week here they've trying to feed us old moldy food and the portions are literally the size of two spoons!!"
"Yesterday our dinner was four crackers and three meat balls, I mean literally that was our dinner!!" he said. "Today they gave us a small Styrofoam bowl of soup and two pieces of bread, I'm sad to say the prison turned into an insane asylum!! Guys got so fed up that they were throwing their food out of their cells at the walls and they were kicking the doors and screaming at the top of their lungs so for a good three hours...and staff refused to come around so there was food dripping off the walls and actually there still is food dripping off the walls because they refuse to come clean it up!!"
And another Green Bay inmate wrote: "For lunch yesterday we got a Styrofoam tray with an ice cream scoop's worth of 'chicken salad' and four ounces of peas. That's it. This is becoming the norm now. When inmates write to the kitchen about they are told it is within nutritional standards. At breakfast today we got a small bowl of cereal and a small piece (approx. 2"x 2") of 'coffee cake' An object that can only be described as being related to 'hardtack.'"
"People are getting sick and not being removed from general population."
While religious volunteers and family visitors are not allowed in the prison because of the pandemic, contractors are inside installing cameras, the inmate said. The contractors are not social distancing themselves from those incarcerated, he said.
As for those sick, he said, "They quarantine only those who develop extreme symptoms that needs direct medical attention. The dorm alone has over 60 infected people, which will be a matter of time before the entire dorm is infected."
"We are hungry and tired," another inmate wrote. "People are getting sick and not being removed from general population. According to staff there is no room to house them separately. But somehow they're finding a way to clear out 16 cells at a time to put in new sinks and toilets."
Inside prison in the heat
Recent heat spikes are making life harder for those incarcerated and working in the state's prisons, as the four inmate testimonials below show.
They have been edited for length and clarity and to protect the writers' identities.
Hey, starting a movement of free speech against cells being too hot in heat advisories. I call it "#I can't breathe cause our cell is too hot."
A lot of inmates are super mad and pissed off because our cell are hot boxes with no air flow or breeze coming through. Inmates crack their doors because it's the only way to get a breeze in your room or air flow.
Some guards are very caring and will let this happen, but others will enforce the closed door policy because their hand was forced and say if doors aren't closed, turning cells into hot boxes, you will get a ticket.
I feel very bad for the elderly and people with health problems. They are the ones that suffer the most. Inmates have had heat exhaustion and I'm sure heat stroke here. The ambulance comes here a lot.
Inmates have complained and were told nothing will be done about it. As some staff sit back and enjoy air-conditioning in their offices, inmates suffer from heat exhaustion in their rooms. I see a HUGE lawsuit coming when someone falls out. Inmates and staff are both sick of nothing being done.
There's not good air flow on the units, either. One person told me today that the warden here said its too expensive to fix the problem to bring air flow to the cells. So now inmates suffer in their cells.
Who's responsible if someone falls out in their cell from the heat because nothing was done? It's like leaving someone in a locked car to fry – it's just not right. I'm just sitting in my cell writing a letter doing nothing. I get soaked in sweat just sitting there. I hope this goes to the media, Madison, higher ups, news stations.
This is inhumane and torture punishment. Ask everyone to share their stories about being hot boxed in their cell and what they did to get change.
"It's like leaving someone in a locked car to fry – it's just not right."
We have to wear sweatpants for 7½ hrs a day. All of the previous week (July 7 to July 10) has been horrendous.
At 7 a.m. the outside temp would be 67°F; however, once in the building the temp on thermometer stated 90°F. There are box fans and a couple industrial (36" fans) none of which really do anything unless you are directly in front of them. Most of the working spaces you would sweat just standing still. On top of this we are required to wear a fabric mask for the entire 7½hrs. These masks do not breathe well. They offer us ice and water to keep cool; however, in that kind of heat it lasts maybe 10 minutes.
We do get three breaks a day; two 10 minute and one 15 minutes. I myself have developed a sweat rash that covered 80% of my back from the chair I sit in. We have asked for the ability to wear shorts during these times. In response we were told that wearing shorts is unprofessional for a work place. This has become a common excuse throughout the last 14 years that I have been locked up; we must wear out shirts tucked in to look professional at all times.
Mostly every day, there is a 'Heat Advisory' in effect which shuts down most movement such as work, recreation, track (any exercise/cardio) and courtyard activities. I can't believe that we are locked into our rooms, especially when there is a legitimate heat index.
We have separate day room times for the upper and lower tiers. Recreation also. When it is not our time out we are locked into our cells. This is quarantine procedure. The heat is oppressive and air does not get into the cell and circulate.
The emergency call buttons are rarely answered, which creates a severe security risk. They take on average close to 11-13 minutes roughly if at all. There are many older people on the unit and they are at risk of heat stroke, fatal heart attacks and seizures.
My cellmate is hypoglycemic and needs to go to HSU (health services unit) four times a day. Rarely does he get out of the cell on time. Therefore he has been denied essential medical care. There are hundreds of cases like this and they need to be brought into the light. The cell doors do not need to be double locked. We should be able to push the release button and exit if we so choose. This is a medium security facility. These actions are not necessary.
(Department of Corrections) Secretary Kevin Carr needs to be made aware of these indiscretions. (Division of Adult Institutions Administrator) Makda Fessahaye doesn't seem to be too concerned with these actions either. I am hoping that by me speaking out that this will start a conversation of the utmost importance. Peoples' LIVES are literally and figuratively at stake and hang in the balance.
I wanted to make the community aware of the living conditions here. We are only allowed cell cleaning once a week on Saturdays and for only 10 minutes per cell and we get timed or get a conduct report.
The cleaning supplies they have consist of generic windex and watered-down disinfectant cleaner and one mop bucket, which each cell uses and water doesn't get changed, nor does the mop head. Very unsanitary.
It is extremely hot in the unit – no air-conditioning, no fans on the tiers, no circulation at all and when the sun is beaming through the window we get conduct reports if we cover the windows up to stop the burning of the sun.
They also only allow us to have three small 8-oz cups a day for ice water. They won't open doors or traps to get some air. A couple inmates on my unit has had some seizures due to how hot it is. This is inhuman to make us suffer like this.
Another note – when it's very hot outside they won't let us use the gym. We have outside rec which is ridiculously hot and humid but they allow the barracks to use gym everyday for multiple hours because they are minimum custody which is bullshit they shouldn't even be allowed on the same grounds as us max inmates.
The crazy part Is (some areas of the prison) have air-conditioning so we don't understand why we can't get some type of air flow. They waiting to several people to die, I guess.
By Gretchen Schuldt
The state prison population increased last week for the second week in a row, reversing the downward trend that began when the coronavirus outbreak prompted the Department of Corrections in March to stop accepting newly sentenced inmates from county jails.
DOC started accepting new inmates again June 1 and continues to do so, despite a statewide surge in coronavirus cases.
The number of incarcerated adults rose from 21,360 on July 10 – the low point in the state prison population this year – to 21,368 on July 17 and 21,390 on Friday.
The female prison population has been on the rise since June 26, when it hit a coronavirus-era low of 1,339. It rose in each subsequent week. The male population of incarcerated adults did not increase until until last week.
The overall prison population remains 9% lower than it was on March 6, early in the pandemic, when it stood at 23,485. On Friday, the population was 21,390.
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