By Gretchen Schuldt
Two organizations representing public health officials around the state called Tuesday on Gov. Tony Evers to reduce jail and prison populations to reduce the spread of coronavirus.
"Incarcerated individuals have much greater health concerns than the general public for many reasons, including the trauma and chronic stress that goes along with being incarcerated - - because chronic stress is a potent immune-system suppressant," they wrote. "As a result, people who are incarcerated are at high risk of not only contracting COVID-19, but also for suffering serious complications (or even death) from the infection."
The two groups, the Wisconsin Public Health Association and the Wisconsin Association of Local Health Departments and Boards, represent about 1,200 public health professionals in the state, the letter said. It was signed by Linda Conlon, co-chair of WALHDAB's Public Affairs Committee, and Maureen Busalacchi, who holds the same position with the Public Health Association.
"Wisconsin’s prisons and jails are already overcrowded, so it is not possible in these settings to practice the social distancing that is recommended by you, and by public health experts, to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19," they wrote.
While officials in some counties have moved to reduce their jail populations to reduce disease spread, DOC has been extremely slow to respond.
On Feb. 21, the state's adult prison population was 23,590, according to Department of Corrections figures. During the following month, the dangers posed by the coronavirus became increasingly obvious and well known. But on March 20, the state's adult prison population was 23,416, a decrease of just 174, or 0.7% from the February number.
"It is not surprising that one correctional staff member at Waupun has already tested positive," the organizations wrote. A staff member at Columbia Correctional Institution also has tested positive..
More people in the prisons will test positively, and the virus will spread rapidly, they said.
"From a public health perspective, safe and rapid decarceration is one of the most effective preventative measure that can be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within jails and prisons and reduce hospitalizations and deaths from jail- and prison-acquired COVID-19 infections," the groups wrote. "Decarceration reduces population density and allows for increased social distancing."
Older and chronically ill incarcerated people are especially at risk of dying, they said.
"Therefore, decarceration steps should particularly emphasize those groups (i.e., over 65, and those 50-64 with chronic medical conditions)," the organizations said. People in the over-50 age category pose little risk of committing violent offenses, they said, "so targeted decarceration among those age groups (as well as younger individuals who do not pose a threat to society for other reasons) can be done safely."
"Not only will reducing overcrowding in prisons reduce staff exposure, but seriously ill inmates are a significant drain on correctional resources, including staff time of guards, prison medical staff, and others," they said.
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