Oshkosh prison takes action after 8 inmates test positive for COVID-19

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

In response to eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution, the housing units those inmates were in have been placed on lockdown, according to state Rep. Michael Schraa, a Republican from Oshkosh who chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Corrections.

As of April 15, OCI has completed 22 tests, with eight positive results, 12 negative results and two pending.

Beyond locking part of the prison down, Schraa said the inmates who have tested positive have been placed in a separate housing unit from the rest of the prison population. They will remain there until they no longer test positive for the virus.

It’s unknown exactly how the virus was brought into the facility, but he said from contact tracing it appears that it was brought into the facility from an asymptomatic staff member.

“[About] 18% of individuals don’t even know that they have the virus,” Schraa said. “That’s all that we can think of.”

As of April 15, no Department of Corrections employees at OCI have tested positive for the virus, according to the DOC website.

Schraa and Rep. Evan Goyke, a Democrat from Milwaukee and member of the Committee on Corrections, have called on the DOC to take further action to contain the transmission of COVID-19, and to be ready to implement a full lockdown at a moment’s notice.

Schraa said putting facilities on full lockdown is rare because it vastly limits inmates’ abilities to move around a facility, exercise and has the potential to negatively impact an inmate’s mental health.

If the DOC places facilities on lockdown too early and inmates are confined to their cells for 30 days or more, Schraa said it would be like “throwing gasoline on a fire and asking for an explosion.”

“There had been riots in other facilities across the United States where the institutions have gone on full lockdown,” he said.

DOC Secretary Kevin Carr has been in conversations with corrections officials across the Midwest to gauge how to best handle the situation, Schraa said.

In terms of releasing at-risk inmates to allow for more distance, he says the DOC has had early discussions, but the topic hasn’t come up in recent weeks.

“That would be, in my opinion, much more difficult to implement because 80% of the individuals that are incarcerated are individuals that have a violent felony,” Schraa said.

He said the recent escape of two inmates from Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage would likely put a damper on those conversations.
One proposal that Schraa said would be more likely would be to release inmates whose sentences are nearly complete.

“Let’s say a person was scheduled to be released on parole on June 1; the DOC may take a look at that and move that date up,” he said.

To limit the spread of COVID-19 in corrections facilities, Schraa said the DOC is trying to acquire personal protective equipment from the state stockpile and the free market to give to inmates and correctional officers.

He said corrections officers can wear masks they bring from home, and that DOC is giving masks to some officers, but has a limited supply.

Inmates in select DOC facilities have volunteered to produce PPE that will be distributed to facilities that have confirmed COVID-19 cases, Schraa added.

“Oshkosh Correctional is on the top of the list,” he said.