The organization fears the pandemic’s risk to prisoners will be forgotten amid protests.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin is pressuring Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr to take immediate action to release some prisoners to mitigate the potential for massive coronavirus outbreaks in Wisconsin corrections facilities.
As of Wednesday, 259 of the state’s nearly 22,000 inmates had tested positive for coronavirus, and nearly 1,100 were quarantined. More than 200 COVID-positive inmates are at the Waupun Correctional Institution (one of those happens to be Steven Avery of “Making a Murderer” fame). There were 2,359 pending tests statewide as of Wednesday, and fifty-seven prison staff members have tested positive.
“Remember that they (inmates) are still at risk of contracting this virus,” said Sean Wilson, Smart Justice organizer for the Wisconsin ACLU. “I am encouraging folks to demand that the governor begin to reduce the prison population to prevent a catastrophe.”
That catastrophe has already been seen in other correctional facilities across the country. The Cook County Jail in Chicago had more than 500 coronavirus-positive inmates by mid-April. The four largest outbreak clusters in the country are in communities surrounding correctional facilities, according to New York Times analysis.
A model from the national ACLU and several prominent research universities estimates that, if no action is taken to reduce arrests or release prisoners, up to an additional 1.8 million infections, 80,000 hospitalizations, and 23,000 deaths could occur.
The state’s prison population — thousands of inmates above capacity — has not been meaningfully reduced since the pandemic reached Wisconsin. On March 13, the state reported an inmate population of 23,196; on May 29, the number was 21,788. The designed capacity of all the state’s public and private facilities is for fewer than 18,000 prisoners.
Much of the national attention has shifted to global protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, who was unarmed and black, by Minneapolis police. But as arrests are made at protests throughout the state, Wilson said he worries the jail population will swell and put prisoners at further risk.
“COVID-19 has been de-emphasized in the media,” Wilson said. “I really believe that as a result of it being de-emphasized, folks will not continue to take precautions so that they won’t contract it. And I’m more concerned specifically for the individuals in our correctional facilities who have to stay.”
On Tuesday, protesters of Floyd’s death made their way to Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney’s home from the Dane County Jail. One of their requests was a reduction in inmate population at the jail to protect prisoners from coronavirus.
The Wisconsin ACLU, in conjunction with 34 other ACLU affiliates, filed an open records request in April to obtain information from the state Department of Corrections and the Trump Administration. They hope to find out whether corrections officials ignored early warning signs of COVID-19 or ever understood the risk the virus posed to prisoners.
Wilson said he urges concerned citizens to contact their local sheriffs, county supervisors, Evers’ office, and Carr’s office to release prisoners.