Inside the State’s Prisons

Inmates talk about prison life during a pandemic when only 1% have been tested for virus.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - May 14th, 2020 11:19 am
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Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center. Photo from the Department of Corrections.

Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center. Photo from the Department of Corrections.

The Department of Corrections announced Friday it would test all inmates and staff at the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center, with a population of 86 inmates, and the Marshall E. Sherrer Correctional Center, which houses 43 incarcerated people. Both facilities are in Milwaukee.

When those additional 129 folks are tested, the state will have tested just 1.3 percent of state prison inmates. Thus far, the DOC has tested about 0.7 percent of the 22,136 imprisoned people. 

Six of seven people previously tested at the Chaney site tested positive for the coronavirus; all four inmates tested at the Sherrer Center tested positive, according to DOC information.

The testimonials below are from inmates at different state prisons. They were edited for length and clarity.

​Well, since Tuesday 5/5/2020 I am now in COVID isolation; yet, ironically, housing us in about the most heavily trafficked area in the [north] cell hall: the showers (and we are not allowed to shower for at least 2 weeks).

It appears that everyone that attended library on Monday afternoon 5/4/2020 is down here with me, less a few that were taken to the hole for the something they said (trivial comments). The irony here is that I was allowed to move about and came into contact with a number of prisoners and staff within the almost 24-hour span between Mon. and Tue.’s quarantine, none of whom are down here. Some staff and inmates were not even wearing masks or PPE.

On a moment’s notice they required me to carry all my property down two flights of stairs unassisted, literally speed walking with two 30-40# bags, a dozen trips. I have tested recently to be malnourished and have serious chronic medical conditions. I wasn’t even allowed to eat my lunch, i.e. unless I wished to forfeit my property or go to the hole (which is one and the same).

The isolation cell they put me in was filthy, containing the leftover “mattress,” or the old uncovered, no-stuffing, ripped, urea-smelling sack of plastic the last COVID patient laid upon.  In fact, one of these guys has already been down here for quarantine before(!) and back again.  Then, having lost my single-cell, I will be coerced into moving back into a double-cell which they know I will refuse for medical & safety concerns, and will proceed to be thrown in the hole, incidentally forfeiting my recent approval for a medium.

So, allow me to intrigue you with this premise: Guards and inmates alike are free to wear masks/PPE at their discretion, yet even though I don masks/PPE and observe proper protocol, I am put in isolation and deprived law library/court access….

Keep in mind they aren’t actually testing us, only screening and monitoring, and they are simply going to throw possible asymptomatic carriers right back into the population and law library, over and over again. And what about staff, some of whom invariably associate with these “Liberate Wisconsin” protests?

***

I have just over nine months left. They have the COVID cases on one unit at this point. It seems to me that it is staying on that one unit, thank God. But we have guards who work in that unit that then go to another unit later that week. They don’t seem to realize that it’s that carelessness that spreads this disease. We have maybe one or two guards who actually follow the mask ideas and they seem to be getting power hungry now that they have to keep us from being in contact with each other.

***

As of today’s date, we have no cases of COVID-19 here. This institution takes the rules of social distancing very seriously. Starting on March 26 we were placed on a modified lockdown. Then a week later we started a full-blown rule change for everything… Starting with day-room time. Where as we used to get almost 13 hours out every day, we now see only 4.1 hours because our day room is broken into 3 groups of out time..(group 1, 2, and 3). Each group consists of anywhere from 30-40 inmates and the times are 1.5 hours for two of the periods and a final 50 minute period to finish off the night.

Inmates are only allowed to sit two to a table, maintain six feet apart, we eat in our cells, we lost the gym for rec, weight room, and library, because it’s too close quarters. But we still have the walking track where we are allowed to walk, jog or run every other day, but only with our group, and no more than 40.

We just got a memo stating that the DOC will be passing out cloth masks for every inmate to wear until the pandemic is over to help keep us safe. We haven’t gotten them yet, but have been told that they are in the works of being made right now. They also said they will be placing a four-pack of disposable masks on the canteen for us to purchase when they get them in. The weird thing is, when we get these cloth masks we will be required to wear them when out in the day room, yet the COs still don’t have to wear any, so what’s the point if they’re just going to bring it in anyway? But, that’s what the memo states as of now.

[The prison] was running a Girl Scout Cookie fundraiser that would have the cookies delivered on the week of 4-20-20 but due to this pandemic (the prison) has suspended it, even though they have taken our money for the event…like, from me, I’m still missing $40 for 8 boxes of cookies. What I don’t get is, deliveries are still allowed, so why not allow the cookies to be delivered to the institution? Either that or refund us our money back… OR allow us to do some good elsewhere and purchase goods from a business hurting in the community right now who can deliver easily consumable foods like pizza or sub sandwiches or something of that nature…that way we can at least feel like we are helping out a little bit and the prisons can get a spotlight in this…you know?

In case you didn’t know this, since we went on modified lockdown and all visitations have stopped, the prison has been offering us two free 15-minute phone calls Sunday-Saturday every week till the pandemic is over. Now, they just passed out another memo stating that in addition to the free calls, they will be giving every inmate one free stamped envelope every other week And 0.50¢ on their kiosk account once a month to help keep everyone in contact with their families… But as for picture and video messaging, it’s still a no-go, even though the kiosks are program eligible and able.

Finally, there’s a nasty rumor going around here by COs stating that ALL transports have been called off till August for all programming, including ERP (Earned Release Program) and CIP (Challenge Incarceration Program)….A lot of guys here are worried about it cause they are waiting to go to CIP, and have been for almost a month now. Add that to the no transports leaving from here in the last week, and that adds up to a lot of worried inmates.

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.” The group filed filed a complaint against Officer Froilan Santiago with the Fire and Police Commission (FPC), contending he made “irresponsible, unprofessional” comments in a disposition regarding the arrest of Jimmy Harris  that were “an insult to the residents of Milwaukee.” The FPC rejected the complaint.

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