CBS 58 Investigates: Wisconsin prisons at risk of coronavirus outbreaks

CBS 58 Investigates: Wisconsin prisons at risk of coronavirus outbreaks

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Friday in an effort to force the state to release more prison inmates. The lawsuit's claims mirror the findings of a CBS 58 Investigation.

As of April 10, the state's prisons hold nearly 23,000 inmates in a system designed to hold around 17,800. So far 96 inmates have been tested for coronavirus, five have tested positive.

Protesters organized a drive-by rally outside the Milwaukee Secure Detention facility Thursday with one goal, to shine a light on the state's overcrowded prisons and the threat of coronavirus.

"There's been a lot of medical neglect for years and then with COVID-19 it becomes a total catastrophe," said Forum for Understanding Prisons volunteer Ben Turk.

CBS 58 Investigates heard similar concerns from an employee and an inmate.

"This has been on our radar since the beginning of March and they have taken no steps to ensure that the business office staff is not putting themselves at risk," said an employee of the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility.

The employee reached out to CBS 58 Investigates concerned they could get or spread the virus. The employee agreed to speak to us anonymously for fear of losing their job for speaking to the media.

"There are still daily meetings with 15-20 people in enclosed spaces," said the employee.

The employee said they're classified as non-essential but have been told by their warden to show up anyway.

"I do not feel as if they are taking this seriously enough, I do not believe that the staff are being provided with accurate resources or adequate... resources to keep themselves safe in the office environment," said the employee.

CBS 58 Investigates raised this employee's concerns with the Department of Corrections.

A spokesperson sent this statement which said:

"As outlined in Section 12 of the Governor’s Safer at Home Order, essential government functions are required to continue and defines corrections personnel as categorically exempt from the order. That said, DOC has established protocols that allow many staff at the Central Office and within the divisions to telework as much as possible. Due to the nature of our operations, all institution employees are considered essential and critical to the climate of the institution, however, each institution has taken steps to allow telecommuting wherever possible and provide alternate schedules to reduce the amount of individuals at an institution at any given time. DOC has further issued guidance with regard to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that encourages all staff to bring and wear cloth face masks, whenever possible. In addition, DOC is striving to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) as resources allow to staff and persons in our care in identified areas where COVID-19 has been confirmed to be present."

CBS 58 Investigates found the number of prisoners currently outweighs the number of hospital beds in all but three counties they're located in. A 2019 state audit also showed the number of prisoners over age 50 has grown 20 percent over a decade. Advocates said prisons are difficult places to control infections.

"Prisons are like nursing homes or cruise ships in terms of being an enclosed atmosphere, once something gets loose in it, it's very, very hard to contain, said WISDOM statewide coordinator David Liners.

The group advocates for prison and criminal justice reform. Liners worries Wisconsin isn't moving fast enough to prevent coronavirus from infecting our prisons.

"There's a lot of people in prisons who live barracks type situations where you've got, you know, 20 or more people in a room," said Liners.

Five inmates have tested positive for coronavirus so far. Liners' group wants the state to release 6,000 inmates, which is about a quarter of the prison population, to spread out the remaining inmates behind bars.

"Under the best of circumstances, infectious diseases go through prisons all the time," said Liners.

"In the beginning of November, everybody was sick, I mean the whole floor, everyone had you know, the cough, the phlegm come up, the runny eyes, and we just thought it was just like the common cold," said inmate Leann Leszynski.

Leszynski is incarcerated at the Robert Ellsworth Correctional Center in Union Grove. She said advocacy groups are right.

"There's like 80 of us down the hallway, and so when I line up for meals or medication, we are very close to each other where you can smell the next person's breath," said Leszynski.

She said the guards have transitioned some of the segregation rooms to hold sick inmates, but she wants to the state to reevaluate who it's holding.

"People that have like six months or less, like get them on the ankle bracelets, like get them out of here because there are lifers in prison that don't want to die here because of coronavirus."

Liners said Governor Tony Evers could order compassionate releases to let older, non-violent inmates out.

"So in this case, we feel like everybody over 65 in our prisons, which there's a significant number of them, everybody over 50, who has a serious medical problem should be reviewed for compassionate release," said Liners.

That's potentially 4,600 people. The state has released about 1,150 prisoners who were being held for technical violations. Evers' chief lawyer said they've taken appropriate measures and have the National Guard ready to step in if an outbreak occurs.

"If we have a large number of correctional officers who are sick, but then also to make sure each facility is implementing best practices," said Chief Legal Counsel Ryan Nilsestuen.

The Department of Corrections statement said:

"DOC is following Department of Health Services (DHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, and has instituted numerous health and safety protocols, including suspension of all visiting and contracted programming in our facilities, enhanced sanitation and disinfectant protocols, routine screening of all facility employees, and enhanced isolation procedures if someone is exposed and/or becomes infected, among others. DOC further encourages the practice of social distancing in each of our facilities, and is providing PPE to certain categories of individuals (i.e. sick patients in our care, healthcare staff, transportation staff, and others as determined by the appointing authority). Upon confirmation of any positive case in an institution, all potentially exposed staff are notified and all persons in our care that were directly exposed are quarantined, which could include being moved to a cell hall with the best means of isolation. Each institution determines the area within their facility most conducive to such isolation procedures."

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