Wisconsin correctional facilities take measures to prevent COVID-19 outbreak

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

The state Department of Corrections is taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in local prisons, but advocates and inmates fear that those actions may not be enough.

The DOC has placed select prisons on lockdown to allow for social distance, according to state Rep. Michael Schraa, a Republican from Oshkosh who chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Corrections.

The Oshkosh Correctional Institution and the Winnebago Correctional Center are not under lockdown, but WCC has temporarily stopped its work release program, Schraa said. As of Thursday night, nine DOC employees have confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The lockdown means prisoners aren’t allowed to congregate in the library or the gym and must stay in their cells, Schraa said.
Wisconsin’s prisons are currently 134% overcapacity, so prisons have two inmates per six-foot by 10-foot cell, he noted.

For prisons under lockdown, the only contact inmates could have with someone other than their cellmate would be with a guard intervening to break up a fight, Schraa said.

At the Winnebago County Jail, Sheriff John Matz said new inmates are given a medical screening and are put into a medical observation area for 14 days before they are released into the general jail population.

But those measures may not ensure enough distance to keep everyone safe, according to David Liners, executive director for WISDOM, a statewide coalition of religious groups that advocates for criminal justice reform.

“Each cell is right next to the next cell, which is right next to the next cell, that’s not enough space,” Liners said. “There is just simply no way to be safe in an overcrowded prison.”

A letter sent to WBAY news from an anonymous inmate at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution echoes those concerns.

If an outbreak were to occur inside the facility, inmates would “be suffering and dropping like flies,” the letter read. “There’s no spare room anywhere in this prison for them to take or keep more than a very small group of contagious people.”

Joseph Schulz
The Oshkosh Correctional Institution houses 2,055 inmates.

Beyond enforcing select lockdowns, Schraa said the DOC is taking temperatures of employees when they come into work to ensure workers aren’t showing up with a fever.

If an employee does come in with a fever, they are not allowed into the institution, he said.

Besides taking employees’ temperature when they come into the facility, Schraa said employees are forced to self-quarantine if they travel out of state.

DOC employees are just as fearful of bringing the virus into the facility as the inmates are of the virus coming in, he added.

“It’s their job is to make sure that these inmates stay incarcerated, but also they look out for their safety,” Schraa said. “They are very professional in their job, and they’re taking this very seriously.”

At the county jail, officers don’t have a formal daily routine, but staff are self-monitoring for symptoms and taking their temperatures before they come into the facility, Matz said.

“I have the utmost confidence in my employees that if they’re not feeling well or if they are symptomatic that they’re not going to come to work,” Matz said.

But the steps in place to prevent someone from bringing the virus into a facility may not be enough because people often transmit COVID-19 without symptoms, Liners said.

“It’s good that they take their temperature, but that’s absolutely no guarantee that they’re not carrying the virus,” Liners said.
If a group of corrections officers was to get sick, Schraa said the DOC would have to try to fill those positions with officers from other facilities because Wisconsin’s prisons understaffed.

If there aren’t enough officers to fill the positions of the sick, the National Guard may be called in to fill in for correctional officers, he said.

“If an entire line went down, it would be catastrophic,” Schraa added.

To avoid catastrophe, Liners said prisons need to reduce their populations by 25% by finding people “who do not need to be in prison,” such as the elderly, the immunocompromised and the low-risk offenders.

“I think we can do that, and we can do it safely, but they need to start working on it,” Liners said.

Schraa said there were initial discussions of releasing elderly inmates and inmates that are up for parole.

“I don’t think we’re to that point yet,” Schraa said of releasing select inmates early.

At the county jail, Matz said the Sheriff’s Office has reduced the number of new inmates coming into the facility, but at this time there are no plans to release inmates.

“We have to always keep in mind public safety as well as this endemic and we’re not going to release people,” Matz said. “That would be a danger to our quality of life and public safety.”

Liners said the state needs to be proactive and act quickly to prevent an outbreak in a corrections facility because “by the time you’ve got an outbreak, you’re late.”

“You don’t want to wait until you’ve got people going from the prison to the intensive care unit,” he said.
If an outbreak were to happen, Liners said it would likely cause local hospitals to be pushed beyond their capacity.
“This is a crisis, and we need to deal with it as a crisis, and there isn’t time to take the usual state bureaucratic approach,” he said.

Editors note: An earlier version of this story included a statement from Rep. Michael Schraa that local prisons were under lockdown. The story has been corrected, after Rep. Schraa verified information with the Oshkosh Correctional Institution and the Winnebago Correctional Center.