By Gretchen Schuldt
As the Department of Corrections continues to delay meaningful action to reduce prison populations in the state, incarcerated people are speaking out about conditions inside.
The charts below show how little changed between the end of February, when the threat posed by the coronavirus became clear, and Friday, April 17. Below each chart is one or more testimonials from people living behind bars. The testimonials have been edited for length, clarity and to protect the writers' identities.
There has been time to act. Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency on March 12; he announced on March 22 that the State Department of Corrections would not accept inmate transfers from counties.
Last week, the DOC announced it would distribute "four (4) disposable ear loop masks through canteen for all persons in our care in the near future."
As far as what's being preached by the D.O.C. spokesperson Mr. (Kevin) Carr about what's being done in these places...to prevent the spreading of COVID 19, at best they are polished statements for the media.
There isn't a day that goes by where guards aren't standing around in bunches as if there isn't a governor's mandate to practice social distancing. Showers are the equivalent of petri dishes because there are always more than 30 people, not counting the four to six guards that are in close proximity to one another. I personally feel like it's shower at your own risk.
The so-called intense cleaning that is alleged to have taken place is non-existent. At best there were a few days of cursory wiping down the handrails on the stairs, and the handles of cell doors. Even that hasn't been done for at least a week. No real cleaning, especially the kind that should be required for this particular level of potential crisis, is taking place. Nor have we been given anything more than normal to sterilize these cells.
The North cell hall is being used as a quarantine station because there are doors in that building rather than bars. However, there are many small holes in the door, and in the barrier next to the door....The entire building has to walk pass those cells to get to the showers rather than having everyone use the other side of the building to get there.
The only building in this institution with truly solid doors is the segregation unit. It would make more sense to clear out one of the wings of that building for quarantine use. That way no one apart from staff would have contact with them....
Now we are being told that rather than continuing to have the medical staff bring medication and/or seeing guys on the unit that they live on, passes will be issued for them to go to that building, and risk coming into unnecessary contact with several people. This is a major concern for me because I have medication orally daily. I will not refuse my medication, but I will refuse to risk infection by going on an issued pass. Those are just a few of the many concerns I, and many others in this place have. SOMEONE NEEDS TO STEP UP AND LOOK INTO THIS INSTITUTION AND IT'S HEALTH CARE FOR US ASAP.
There have been inmates in quarantine in HSU (health services unit) & also seg. w/no property they are not allow to use the phone or even send out their mail. So their family do not know what is going on here. Their rights are being violated. They are being punished for this COVID-19 they might not even have it. They should be allowed their property. I ask the Sgt why these inmates can't be on the north side of seg. so they can have their property. He told me he does not know. The people on the street have rights in their house to watch TV & have their property when they are quarantined, but we are in prison we are not allowed. If they quarantine me they will not be happy with me I will be complaining everyday if I'm in seg or HSU with out my property.
I attempted to protect myself by wearing a mask provided by HSU staff. I was disrespected and aggressively confronted by (a sergeant) and staff ...requesting I throw away the mask or give it to him personally. I then asked him why I have to give up my (P.P.E) without reason and asked why when it's stated on news and recommendations from (Govt.) to wear these masks and practice preventive measures. I am aware that medical staff and guards here a primary source of transmission of (Covid-19) since they are in contact with the general public and have no physical proof or quarantined measures before entering the prison population daily .
We have no way of effectively distancing ourselves from them or anyone else who may be harmful to our health and safety, and we need to know what's being done on this matter. I wish not to be penalized and punished for exercising my right to survive. I was told I could create panic, as if the...individuals who already have it from staff and the threats of further lockdown doesn't create enough panic.
They had a big meeting with all the inmates with cpap (continuous positive airway pressure) machines. They gave us the option of giving up our cpap machines or be moved to the treatment center....They told us that we are considered "high risk" to contract the virus due to our cpap machines so if we wanted to keep our machines we would have to relocate to the treatment center. A lot of inmates gave up their machines to avoid being on the same unit as the coronavirus-quarantined inmates. What I don't understand is if we are "high risk" why would the administration put us on the same floor as the people with coronavirus? This policy just doesn't make any sense. We are being forced to either suffer sleep apnea and possibly die in our sleep just to avoid being near coronavirus-infected inmates or keep our machines and live within feet of infected inmates. What kind of a choice is that? I would think you would house the "high risk" inmates as far away from quarantined inmates as possible...Governor Evers really needs to act before it's too late....I chose to keep my cpap machine so I feel like I'm sitting on death row just waiting for this coronavirus to hit (here). Thank you for your time.
By Shannon Ross
I'll get right to the meat: Gov. Tony Evers and the Department of Corrections have far more than the two options they mentioned for releasing people.
They mentioned in a statement only Certain Earned Release and Special Action Parole, but they can also employ Community Residential Confinement (DOC Administrative Code 327.04, which allows them to let parole-eligible people finish their time at home, on community custody), Emergency removal (325.01), which allows release during an emergency, and leave (326) (which allows them to grant furloughs to "nonviolent" individuals for extended periods to facilitate family reintegration and stability).
They can talk to judges around the state about granting more sentence adjustments (two guys here with nonviolent crimes and histories were just denied, but get released within four months anyways). They can parole more people – many have somewhere to go and are set for release in the next year or two anyways, so what will it matter if they go home now after having served 20-30 years in prison?
Most of all, Evers can commute the sentences of everyone with less than a year left to serve on their sentences (or less than six months or four months or whatever he wants). One of my cellmates is doing 5 months on misdemeanors right now. Does it make ANY DAMN SENSE to not commute his sentence amid this pandemic?
The Certain Earned Release option he mentioned only applies to a smidgen of a crumb of a percentage of incarcerated people (I'd be shocked if it was more than .01%). Everyone else they mentioned releasing in press releases the last two weeks was from jails and Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. They have effectively done nothing to address the potential danger in prisons.
Before I address Evers' and the DOC's repeated puffery about what they are doing to keep us "persons in their care" safe, let me applaud them on the one thing they have done right: the FAQ and the transparent, up-to-date COVID status pages on the DOC website. The public and our loved ones are able to see in real time (supposedly) how many staff and incarcerated people have been tested, how many tested positive and at what facilities, and how many are awaiting results. DOC and Evers could have done their typical suppression of info under the comically North Korea-esque guise of security reasons, but they have endeavored for sunshine instead. Thank you. But it pretty much ends there.
They keep saying they have a plan, but judging from my experience and the hundreds of emails from incarcerated people statewide that I get in my role as manager of the most-widely read anti-mass incarceration publication in the state (thecommunitywis.wixsite.com/home), they seem like an infant learning to walk. Yes, they are providing two free phone calls a week (which, by the way, with the usurious phone rates they charge, is like stealing someone's car then claiming to be a good guy because you let them use it for free two times a week).
But phone access has been curtailed at several facilities, especially where I am, and the calls commonly disconnect midway through (so much for a free 15-minute call when it hangs up on you within five minutes) and hardly anyone who was getting visits had problems with calling their loved ones in the first place (if you'll pony up $20-$50 for gas and snacks to visit someone in prison, you'll provide money so they can call you).
By Gretchen Schuldt
The number of people who were incarcerated in local jails for parole or probation violations dropped about 65% between Feb. 28 and Friday, April 3, according to the latest Department of Corrections statistics.
Those released had been held under the short-term sanctions program for violations. There were 534 such jail inmates on Feb. 28; on Friday, there were 189, a decline of 345 or 64.6%.
Although prisons and jails are excellent breeding grounds for the coronavirus, DOC is slow to move incarcerated people out of state prisons. The male prison population dropped 1.2% during the same time period, while the number of women held in all state correctional facilities dropped 3.4%. The number of prison inmates held under contract in county jails and the Milwaukee County House of Correction fell by 3.7%.
The population of DOC's Division of Adult Institutions, which includes prisons, is about 23% over design capacity, according to DOC numbers.
It is not clear how much of the decline in prison population is Gov. Tony Evers' March 22 announcement that the DOC would not accept inmate transfers from counties, and how much is due to additional releases.
Advocates, including WJI, have urged Evers to release low-risk offenders to decrease the danger of coronavirus transmissions among prison staff and incarcerated people.
The latest numbers are below. The source for all three charts is the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Advocates and medical experts around the country are urging prison officials to release low-risk incarcerated people from prison to stem the tide of the coronavirus, but prison populations in Wisconsin have declined just minimally, DOC figures show.
Wisconsin has experienced some success in reducing the number of people on community supervision who are locked up for one reason or another. That number dropped 39% in about a month.
The coronavirus crisis has been well-established in the public consciousness for more than a month. Gov. Tony Evers declared a public health emergency on March 13; he announced on March 22 that the State Department of Corrections would not accept inmate transfers from counties.
News about the dangers of coronavirus in prisons and jails specifically began appearing months ago; in January, the focus was on prisons in other countries, such as China; by early March, corrections officials in the United States were well aware of the dangers to incarcerated populations here.
Many court proceedings in the state have ground to a halt, meaning that fewer people are getting sentenced to prison, which should contribute to declines in prison populations.
The charts below tell the story. The source for the charts is DOC inmate population counts.
Men's prisons: No surprise that the maximum security male population has barely budged; after all, these are the men considered the greatest threats to public safety. But the declines in the populations of men considered to be of lesser risk also are minimal.
Contract beds: A decline of a whopping 20 people, and the Milwaukee County House of Correction accounts for more than half of that total. Meanwhile, the DOC is not accepting inmates from jails.
Other institutions: The number of people on community supervision who are in locked up has dropped significantly. The number of women serving prison sentences, though, has not dropped much, and the number in minimum security institutions has actually gone up by four.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Advocacy groups on Tuesday called on Gov. Tony Evers to expand the compassionate release program to allow the release of more aged and infirm incarcerated people from state prisons.
"The prison health system cannot handle a massive outbreak of COVID-19. State officials must work to keep our communities safe without putting those serving prison sentences at unnecessary risk," the groups said in a letter to Evers. "You and the DOC (Department of Corrections) must act now to release some of those imprisoned. Lives really are at stake."
The letter was signed by the Wisconsin Justice Initiative; the ACLU of Wisconsin; the Milwaukee Turners Confronting Mass Incarceration Committee; the National Lawyers Guild, Milwaukee Chapter; and WISDOM.
The groups requested Evers to direct DOC to "aggressively" use the program to release qualified, low risk-people from "our overcrowded, understaffed prisons."
"Wider use of compassionate release will reduce prison crowding and help prevent the spread of coronavirus," the groups wrote. "It will reduce stress on prison medical staff and take a long overdue step toward making the compassionate release program an effective and useful tool. The risks posed by coronavirus to too many incarcerated people are greater than the risks these people pose to the public. "
By Gretchen Schuldt
Gov. Tony Evers is proposing to spend $8.1 million to improve heating and ventilation at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF), an indication that he won't shut down the facility as its critics demand.
Heat index temperatures can hit more than 90 degrees in much of the 15-story building and 120 degrees in the kitchen, according to state budget documents.
The proposed project, which would be completed in 2023, would improve the situation, according to the Department of Corrections (DOC).
Mark Rice, an ex-MSDF inmate and an organizer of the "Close MSDF" campaign, called for more.
"A true people's budget focused on racial equity, justice, and compassion must include a plan to divest from Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility and other prisons in Wisconsin and redirect resources to the neighborhoods in Milwaukee that have been the most harmed by incarceration," said Rice, now lead national organizer for JustLeadershipUSA, a group working to reducing mass incarceration.
MSDF is a medium-security prison in Downtown Milwaukee that also holds inmates pending investigations into their alleged probation, parole, or extended supervision violations. It has a design capacity of 1,038.
DOC said in its budget request that the facility's population regularly exceeds 1,100 inmates. More than half suffer from serious mental illness and about 75 percent receive daily psychotropic drugs.
"These drugs often create additional health concerns for inmates in high heat index situations," DOC said.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Wisconsin keeps more people on parole longer than most other states, and more parole terms end with incarceration here than in other states, according to a report released Tuesday by the Columbia Justice Lab.
“Our report contains troubling findings that Wisconsin is wasting money and wasting lives by supervising and violating thousands of people not for new crimes, but for technical violations of supervision,” Vincent Schiraldi, co-director of the Justice Lab and former Commissioner of New York City Probation, said in a prepared statement. “Wisconsin should now follow the example of dozens of states and focus community supervision resources on those most in need of it, stop returning people to prison for ‘ticky-tack’ rule violations, and use the savings from such reforms to fund programs and opportunities that help people turn their lives around.”
Below are highlights from the report, "The Wisconsin Community Corrections Story." The language generally taken straight from the document (omitting citations).
By Gretchen Schuldt
All they want to do is get married, but those wedding bells have been tough to come by.
Wendy Sisavath and Victoriano Heredia, an inmate at Wisconsin's Fox Lake Correctional Institution. have been trying for almost a year to get someone at the prison to get involved so they can do what they need to do to get down the aisle and exchange vows.
They filed the original paperwork in February or March of last year and are no closer to the altar than they were then.
"We are banging our heads against the wall," Sisavath said.
DOC spokesman Tristan Cook said in a November email that the agency was actively reviewing the wedding request.
'"Inmate Heredia’s social worker is working with him," Cook wrote. Cook has since left his job.
DOC did not respond to a follow-up email sent Friday.
Heredia got a new social worker in November, his third since June. This latest social worker, Sisavath said, insisted "'I don't do the marriage thing. It goes through the chaplain.'"
Getting hitched in prison is way more complicated than getting married on the outside; the Department of Corrections' inmate marriage policy is five pages long. Among other things, it requires extensive counseling for every couple. Officials at the prison must approve the counselor.
Sisavath said she and Heredia first were told they would have to undergo six months of marriage counseling. Then, because Heredia is a lifer, prison officials changed the requirement to 12 months.
Heredia is required to have $2,000 on hand to cover counseling costs, including the cost of guards at the counseling sessions, even though the area is guarded anyway. That $2,000 is a problem in itself. Heredia doesn't have it in his available prison account, and if Sisavath were to give it to him, she would be unable to get it back if something happened and the marriage did not come off. Inmates are not allowed to send money from their accounts out of the institution.
By Gretchen Schuldt
Correctional officers and sergeants logged 1.8 million hours of overtime at adult facilities last year at a cost of almost $51 million, according to a new Department of Corrections report.
That amounts to 34,714 hours a week, or 3,001 hours more per week than the overtime worked by all DOC workers in 2015-16, according to a 2017-19 budget paper prepared by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Security staff worked an average of 28,235 hours per week overtime in 2015-16, according to the LFB.
Almost half of last year's overtime was attributable to employees plugging holes when positions were vacant, according to DOC. The new figures cover the year ending July 1.
Correctional officers and sergeants at Dodge Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison for men, recorded a total of 212,734 overtime hours at a total cost of $6.2 million, tops in the adult system, according to the report. Some 67 percent of that was due to staff vacancies, the report said.
Overall, system wide, position vacancies required 844,195 hours of overtime at a cost of $24.6 million, according to the report. That is 47 percent of the hours and cost of overtime.
Other reasons for overtime including sick leave, construction project detail, assisting inmates with medical visits, trips, and training, according to the report.
Gov. Tony Evers took office this week vowing to reduce prison populations. Some legislators want to build additional facilities, though the state cannot staff the ones they have.
In May, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 920 jobs at state prisons were empty, a 12.5 percent vacancy rate.
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