What’s Life Like Inside State’s Prisons?

Contrasting state's official description vs. inmate’s account of prison life during pandemic.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Apr 13th, 2020 03:25 pm
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Green Bay Correctional Institution. Photo from the Department of Corrections.

Green Bay Correctional Institution. Photo from the Department of Corrections.

What are conditions like in the state prisons since the advent of the pandemic? Information from Gov. Tony Evers and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes describing the situation differs considerably from the description by an inmate who wrote this writer.

The letter (excerpted) from Evers and Barnes on the Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ response to COVID-19.

Some of those [DOC] action steps include:

  • Implementing social distancing practices during dining, recreation, and wherever else possible;
  • Using technology, like video visits, instead of face-to-face visits whenever possible;
  • Paying extra attention to sanitation and cleaning protocols in facilities, field offices, and transport vehicles;
  • Screening workers for COVID-19 symptoms before entering facilities; and
  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) as resources allow to staff and persons in the DOC’s care in identified areas where COVID-19 has been confirmed to be present. In addition, the DOC will continue to source masks and other PPE to increase supply at all sites.

A list of preventive measures and other details on the DOC’s COVID-19 response can be found here.

The DOC knows that some of the things that they have had to do to keep people safe, such as limiting visitation, are incredibly hard for people in custody, their friends, and their families. The DOC is reviewing its decisions on a daily basis and continues to look for ways to keep spirits up during this difficult time. Some of the efforts implemented to help during this difficult period include:

  • Waiving medical co-pays for anyone exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 (this fee was already waived for youth);
  • Giving youth unlimited free phone calls and adults two free fifteen-minute phone calls per week; and
  • Increasing weekly and bi-weekly spending limits for canteen items.

We recognize that there continues to be concerns about Wisconsin’s high prison population and how COVID-19 could affect people in custody. It is important to note that the DOC has no authority to unilaterally release adults in custody before their mandatory release date. There are two very limited primary ways where the DOC has authority on its own to grant an early release (meaning it does not require a petition to a court or another authority):

  • Certain Earned Release: this can only be used for a person who is serving a sentence for a nonviolent offense if the sentence was imposed between 2009 and 2011 and the person is within 12 months of release from the confinement portion of their sentence.
  • Special Action Parole: this can only be used to relieve overcrowding and is only for people who are parole eligible and have not been convicted of an assaultive crime.

While there are other programs that can release people before their mandatory release date, these additional release mechanisms require several important steps and they can include: a judge to first make the person eligible at sentencing, the completion of certain programming, and through a hearing, approval by the sentencing judge to be released. These programs include the Earned Release Program and the Challenge Incarceration Program. The DOC is continuing these important programs, while implementing social distancing and other precautionary measures. The DOC is also helping make sure parole hearings still take place by doing parole meetings through video and phone, wherever possible. Information about other release mechanisms can be found here.

An incarcerated person’s experience in a state prison: 

I thought I would share with you my living conditions here…

* Number of people that we interact with on a daily basis: 72.

* Number of people per aisle: 18… Cells don’t have doors or ceilings so interactions just with one aisle is all day everyday.

* Number of telephones for 72 people: 3… Phones are being used right now from 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. by multiple people throughout the day. They are NOT being properly cleaned or disinfected throughout the day.

* Number of microwaves for 72 people: 2… Microwaves are being used throughout the whole day by 72 people and are only being halfway cleaned 3 times a day.

* Number of tables for 72 people: 4… Each table is designed for 8 people per table, so for all 3 meals we have to fit 72 people in 4 tables. When we eat, we are literally touching each other’s shoulders. The contact is constant because we have to wait all next to each other in line to get our meal trays.

* Number of sinks for 72 people: 10… Most of the time it’s only 7 sinks because 3 are always broken. Again, these 7 sinks are being used every day all day by 72 people and are only being halfway cleaned 2 times a day. The hand soap that is available is the regular soap dispenser that is mounted to the wall… Canteen allows us to buy the following body soaps… Irish Spring Aloe, Dove sensitive bar soap, and sport bar soap. Most of the people in here can’t afford to buy these types of soaps so they have to use a very generic state soap that doesn’t help much.

* Number of showers for 72 people: 7… Showers are about 10 inches apart from each other. Showers are being used throughout the whole day and are only being cleaned one time at the end of the day.

* Since the coronavirus outbreak visitation had been closed to family and friends. School had been cancelled until further notice.

* Recreation… We normally have indoor rec 2 times a day with about 200 people, but now they came out with this new modified recreation schedule where we still have recreation once a day. Instead of 200 people at a time right now is about 100 people at a time which doesn’t make any sense because what is the difference between 100 and 200 when it comes to social distance. We still have access to lifting weights so they are touched by most of the people that attend recreation. We are NOT allowed to wash our hands at any time at the recreation building. After our rec period is over we have to wait until we get back to our units to wash our hands. (I’m having a hard time understanding why we can’t wash our hands in the recreation building.) Correction officers do pat searches throughout the day. Every time they do pat searches they do NOT change gloves in between searching inmate after inmate. Sometimes they search up to 5 inmates at a time.

* The few bottles of disinfectant that are available in the unit don’t have labels on it, so I can’t even say what type of disinfectant it is. Most people that have symptoms of some type of flu or any type of sickness deal with it in their own way because most of us can’t afford to pay $7.50. Sometimes we have to make a choice whether we want to pay $7.50 to see a nurse or use that $7.50 to buy the most basic necessities like a toothpaste or stamped envelopes.

* There is NO such thing as social distance in a place like this. No gloves, masks, or any type of extra protection to care for ourselves. Everyday is like a normal day in here.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation

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