For nearly a month this fall, protesters gathered outside the governor’s mansion to call on Gov. Tony Evers to use his clemency powers to reduce state prison populations due to the spread of COVID-19 in those facilities.
Peggy West-Schroder, whose husband and nephew are incarcerated, protested near the end of the governor’s driveway from Oct. 19 through late November when the weather turned cold and rainy. West-Schroder said she wanted the governor to understand the worries of the families of incarcerated people.
“When [my husband] doesn’t call me, the first thing that goes through my head is not, ‘Oh, I bet he just didn’t get up this morning,’” West-Schroder said. “The first thing I think is he’s dead. Or he’s in the hospital or he’s incapacitated in some form.”
West-Schroder is a former county supervisor and the Statewide Campaign Coordinator for Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), a group that works to end mass incarceration. The directors of EXPO and its parent organization WISDOM, a statewide network of faith communities, met with Evers in July but have not been able to reach him since.
Back in March, the group’s leaders sent Evers a letter asking him to review compassionate release applications and release people who are elderly, immunocompromised or have preexisting conditions that would make them vulnerable to the virus.
Between March 2 and May 4, nearly 1,600 inmates were released, most of whom were being held in county jail or in the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility because they violated terms of probation, parole or extended supervision, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
According to a November statement from DOC Secretary Kevin Carr, the agency has reduced the prison population by more than 2,500 since the onset of the pandemic, the lowest prison population level since 2002.
No action from Evers
Despite the release of some inmates, Evers has not yet used his powers to commute sentences despite continued calls from advocates.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin and other groups have called on Evers to change his policy of only considering clemency for prisoners who have completed their sentences, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in April seeking to release elderly and vulnerable inmates, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected the suit. The ACLU and Prison Policy Initiative gave the state an F+ in June for its handling of the pandemic in state jails and prisons.
According to a May report from the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau, “state legal authority and case law precedent” provide avenues for Evers, the DOC or the courts to release certain prisoners. The governor can use his or her clemency power to shorten prison terms and release inmates, although the “current administration’s policy suggests that this is unlikely.”
West-Schroder said EXPO coordinated a petition drive, held a “week of action” to contact officials and legislators and led a “drive to decarcerate” at the governor’s mansion — but have not heard anything from Evers.
When asked for comment, Evers’ office referred to a media briefing last Tuesday, where the governor was asked if he would consider compassionate release to reduce prison populations.
“Our prison population actually has decreased during the pandemic for various types of programs that we feel it’s clear that it’s helpful. But, at the end of the day, if we were to release half of the prisoners and if we still have community spread, it would still be getting into the prisons,” Evers said.
West-Schroeder said she was “deeply troubled” by Evers’ comments.
“It actually does make a difference if we can get the population down. It would really help and give people a chance to survive,” she said. “I don’t know what else he could do to prove that he absolutely doesn’t care.”
Facility outbreaks and adjustments
According to the DOC, there are currently 1,264 active positive cases in the state’s facilities. Over 2,000 inmates are in quarantine — which separates those who were potentially or directly exposed — and over 1,300 are in isolation — which separates those experiencing symptoms.
Fox Lake Correctional Institution and Taycheedah Correctional Institution are currently experiencing some of the worst outbreaks. Fox Lake has 476 active positive cases and Taycheedah has 195 — respectively 16 and 22 percent of each facility’s total population. Both are operating at nearly 130 percent of their designed capacity.
Evers suspended admissions to state prisons in March, but the state resumed limited admissions on June 1. Inmates were quarantined at Dodge Correctional Institution, the state’s intake facility, before moving to another prison. Dodge has seen the sixth-highest number of positive tests among correctional facilities in the state.
In total, the state’s adult institutions are at about 116 percent of their designed capacity, according to the most recent population report from the DOC. Public health experts have noted increased challenges for correctional facilities in controlling the spread of the virus due to crowded conditions and shared environments.
“It’s a perfect storm. They’re overpopulated and they’re understaffed,” West-Schroder said. “You have staff that are sick that are being told to come into work, staff not used to wearing masks, that’s one of the most common complaints we get from inmates and loved ones is that they don’t wear masks.”
According to the DOC, all staff are required to wear face coverings while entering and working in facilities. Before July, not all facilities required employees to wear masks. Beginning the week of Nov. 16, the DOC phased in a plan to test employees every two weeks.
The DOC requires employees who have been in close contact with someone positive for COVID-19 to quarantine for 14 days. However, employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 and do not show symptoms can work “if staffing shortages are a safety concern and mandating quarantine due to exposure would exacerbate the staffing concerns,” per state Department of Health Services guidance.
The state prison system has historically struggled with staffing shortages that have worsened during the pandemic, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
On Tuesday, the DOC announced it began the process of closing a cell hall at the Waupun Correctional Institution, citing “long-standing staffing shortages.” The move will decrease the population by 20 percent and prisoners will be moved to other facilities.
The DOC did not report deaths until late October after pressure from criminal justice groups and still does not report the locations of the deaths. By that time, five inmates had already died due to COVID-19. In total, fourteen COVID-19 related deaths among inmates have occurred since the onset of the pandemic, according to the department.
The DOC’s dashboard explains there can be delays between a death and its addition to the dashboard because medical examiners must determine whether COVID-19 was an underlying cause of death.
West-Schroder said she is “100 percent” certain that more deaths have occurred than those made public by the DOC.
“I think that they’re not being honest about death tolls. I know for a fact they’re not being honest about it because they are not giving you a way to track it. It’s a lot of, ‘Don’t look over here,'” West-Schroder said.
West-Schroder said EXPO wants Wisconsinites to understand that incarcerated people are people too.
“Everyone who is incarcerated belongs to a family somehow, they’re somebody’s father, daughter, sister, mother. We want to make sure that’s how people are looking at them, they’re more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” West-Schroder said. “No one in Wisconsin has a death sentence and we don’t want COVID to become a death sentence.”
state news writer