The Wisconsin Department of Corrections is temporarily suspending in-person visits to state prisons as active COVID-19 cases among inmates tripled in the past week.
Last Thursday, the DOC reported 466 active cases of the coronavirus among people housed in state institutions. That number grew to 1,415 active cases as of Thursday afternoon, according to the agency’s COVID-19 dashboard. The new Lisbon Judiciary accounted for more than a third of active cases with 532 prisoners currently infected with the virus.
Like everywhere else, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said the agency has seen a surge in cases due to the highly contagious ommicron strain.
“DOC has not seen a corresponding increase in serious illness in people entrusted to our care, probably due to a combination of the high vaccination coverage in our facilities and the evidence that this ommicron variant causes less serious illness,” Carr said. in a statement Thursday. “However, we believe that making these temporary changes is the best way to protect our staff, those in our care and the communities around our institutions.”
Active cases of the virus among corrections officers also rose about 30 percent in the past week, from 365 to 478 employees currently infected with COVID-19 during the same period.
The agency resumes personal visits in July after 15-month suspension due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The move this week marks a return to video visits with families and loved ones.
“It’s really disappointing. However, we believe this is in the best interest of everyone — not just the people in their care,” said Peggy West-Schroder, statewide campaign manager for Organizing EX detainees, or EXPO, based in Milwaukee.
On Thursday, corrections officials announced several other changes to limit the spread of the virus. They include temporarily suspending access for volunteers, contractors, and other non-DOC personnel, except for emergency services or necessary facility work.
Religious volunteers are still allowed to enter the facilities, but lawyers and other professional visits must temporarily be made by phone or video. Those who gain entry will be required to undergo rapid COVID-19 antigen testing starting Tuesday. They must also follow COVID-19 safety protocols, including wearing masks and observing social distancing.
Transfers between prisons and outside medical visits are assessed on a case-by-case basis. The DOC staff will continue to provide education, vocational and treatment programs for inmates, subject to COVID-19 security measures. Inmates may also continue to participate in job release, community service, or education outside DOC facilities with additional testing two to three days a week.
Shannon Ross served 17 years in prison for reckless murder in what Ross called a “massively stupid act of revenge” as a teenager. He was released from the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution in September 2020. Ross, who is executive director of The community, said he has little confidence that staff are following DOC protocols.
Ross added that there is not much the agency can do to stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. He said correction officers have made no progress in releasing people to avoid “sardine-like” capacity.
Weekly data from the last Friday of each month shows that the prison population fell by nearly 16 percent between the end of February 2020 and February 2021. according to a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
Still, advocates for incarcerated Carr and Governor Tony Evers have pushed for the release of more individuals since the start of the pandemic, especially those most vulnerable to complications from the virus.
“It’s impossible to separate individuals. They’re going to be brought together and you can’t do anything about the dispersion in there,” Ross said. “Fortunately, there is a higher vaccination rate in the Wisconsin prison system.”
all around 81 percent of the more than 16,000 people housed in state prisons are fully vaccinated. Despite the high vaccination coverage, West Schroder said she is still concerned about her cousin being housed at the Racine Correctional Institution.
“He’s already had COVID. He’s also been vaccinated, so I feel a little better about his situation, but I’m not going to lie. I’m still worried,” she said.
At least 33 people housed in state prisons have died from COVID-19. west schroder said: rising number of hospital admissions statewide is a reason behind her concerns. She said she believes the changes in outside medical visits are due to the lack of staff available to transport and monitor those seeking care.
Almost 20 per cent or about 2,000 full-time jobs remain unfilled at the DOC.
Corrections will look at whether the changes should be extended or lifted in early February.