Freedom’s Cause # 20 – July 12, 2020

July 12, 2020


In a previous issue of Freedom’s Cause, we reported that incarcerated litigators at Columbia CI had legal documents seized and were subjected to other kinds of harassment. Milwaukee IWOC organized a phone zap to demand that the documents be returned and the harassment come to an end. 47 outside contacts volunteered to participate in the zap, which took place on June 22. We have since received confirmation that the legal papers have been returned. Congratulations to all who took part in this successful action. An injury to one is an injury to all!


As of Friday (July 10), the DOC reports that there are 10 active cases (vs. 6 three weeks ago) and 274 recovered or released cases among ‘persons in their care’, for a total of 284. 17,310 persons have been tested (vs. 12,552 three weeks ago). Here is the ratio of positive tests to total tests by prison: Black River 1/25, Chippewa Valley 2/506, CCI 3/5, DCI 5/2,244, Drug Abuse Correctional Center 1/275, Felmers O Chaney 18/96, JCI 3/1,654, Kettle Moraine 1/38, Marshall E Sherrer 6/48, MSDF 2/861, OSCI 9/2,024, RCI-Sturtevant 2/40, Redgranite 2/972, St. Croix 1/2, WCI 228/1,232.

Among employees, there are 73 confirmed cases in adult institutions (vs. 56 three weeks ago): Bureau of Correctional Enterprises, 1, CCI 4, DCI 3, Felmers O Chaney 2, FLCI 2, GBCI 3, Kenosha 1, Kettle Moraine 1, Marshall E Sherrer 1, MSDF 15, OSCI 2, RCI 7, RYOCF 4, RGCI 2, Robert E Ellsworth 1, TCI 2, WCI 22. In addition, there were 14 cases in the Division of Community Corrections and 3 in the Division of Juvenile Corrections. 68 have recovered and 22 are still out. (Source: DOC official site)

On the outside: as of today (July 12), Wisconsin has 39,095 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 829 deaths. (Source: Wikipedia and NYT)

All state employees, including staff at state-run correctional facilities, will be required to wear masks at all times inside state buildings starting Monday (July 13), Wisconsin officials announced. The Journal Sentinel reported last week that not all Wisconsin correctional facilities were requiring staff to wear masks, while many other states had established mask requirements in all prisons. (Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Policy Initiative released a 50-state report entitled “Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons.”  In the report, Wisconsin was given a grade of F+ for its response to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic in state jails and prisons. Wisconsin received partial points for committing to test all corrections staff and incarcerated individuals, distribute masks to staff and those incarcerated and provide daily reporting on the spread of the virus, although the state lost points for not providing a detailed breakdown of that data. Wisconsin also lost points for Gov. Tony Evers not issuing executive orders stopping jail admissions, addressing near-completion of sentences or releasing those jailed with medically vulnerable diseases. (Source: ACLU website)


A contact at WSPF reported last week that 15 persons were on fluid and/or hunger strikes to protest administrative confinement. IWOC has been calling the prison daily for information. When the security director’s office could be reached, the staff claimed that only one person is on strike (and that they ‘don’t retaliate at this prison’). We will continue to press WSPF for updates. 

The recent heat wave hit OSCI particularly hard. In an email received on July 6, one contact reported: ‘Seriously overheated here… In my unit (Q bldg) our rooms are probably about 100 to 110 degrees (guessing, I don’t have a thermometer) because WE DON’T HAVE ANY AIR CIRCULATION FROM OUR VENTS. On this unit, we haven’t had air circulation for about two months now. Our maintenance department has known about it, but haven’t done anything about it as far as I know.’ Another writes, ‘With the weather being so hot & humid, our ice machines run out quickly. This is partly due to self-centered selfish inmates filling pitchers and large bowls of ice. This is also partly because the ice machines are not designed for this many people. So once the machine runs out, within 20 minutes of being opened back up, we are suppose to get a bucket of ice. However, we are limited to 2 buckets per shift. Again, pitchers and large bowls are filled, leaving the older men and handicapped men with nothing. One of these men just had a heat stroke last night (7-3).’ 

With in-person visits on indefinite hold, video-conferencing remains the only way for incarcerated people to see their loved ones. Reactions so far have been mixed. One contact writes, ‘I really like the visits. Will be nice once we get contact visits back, but this is especially good for my grandparents and family members that live out of state. And all 12 visitors can be on at once. They all get the call in number and code. One thing I’m trying to get added, or changed, is the amount of visitors we’re allowed to have on our approved list. With this making access easier you’d think this wouldn’t be a hard sell, but then again it is the WI DOC.’ Another reports, ‘A memo was just posted on our unit for visits…. They are 30 minute visits once a month until they decide there is enough slots for more. This will be problematic as they are having staff actively watch each visit which means that as staff shortages increase, video-visitation ability will decrease. According to the memo if someone else appears on the screen or is overheard in the background the visit will be terminated…As I watched people reading this memo their anger was obvious.’ 


The Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws (ACSOL) filed a lawsuit today challenging the early release plans of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The agency plans to begin releasing from prison on July 1 anyone convicted of a non-violent offense who has a release date no later than December 31. The agency’s plans, however, exclude anyone required to register as a sex offender. “The categorical exclusion of all registrants from CDCR’s early release plans is irrational, arbitrary, an abuse of discretion, and serves merely to reflect CDCR’s apparent judgment that the lives of registrants are less important than those of other incarcerated persons,” stated ACSOL Executive Director Janice Bellucci. (Source: ASCOL website). IWOC members have asked for a copy of the suit, and will consider filing a similar action here. 

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Madison for a different reason than the last several weeks. Thursday afternoon (June 18) the focus shifted to Gov. Tony Evers, who, protesters said, is ignoring incarcerated people as coronavirus infection rates in prisons soar. They rallied outside the Executive Residence, urging the governor to use his pardon powers to get Wisconsin’s overcrowded prison population numbers down to stop the spread of the virus. (Source: Spectrum News 1, Madison)

Stephen Lehman, a prisoner at Oakhill Correctional Institution in southern Wisconsin, wasn’t hopeful when he heard about the CARES Act, the legislation enacted by Congress in March as COVID-19 battered the economy. But he figured he would try. He asked a friend on the outside to apply on his behalf. On May 4, Oakhill informed Lehman that he had received his check. The next day, however, a letter from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections told him that the prison was putting a hold on the funds. On May 6, the IRS published rules online declaring that, because of restrictions in the Social Security Act, incarcerated people are ineligible for economic impact payments. But legal experts say that the IRS acted beyond its authority, perhaps even illegally. When Congress passed the CARES Act, it never mentioned incarcerated people at all. The IRS appears to have devised its own policy, usurping Congress’s powers. That decision has prompted an uproar from advocates for prisoners, and it drew a harsh rebuke from at least one senator who voted for the law. Civil rights groups are looking into suing the IRS—and there’s some precedent for legal action. (Source: The Appeal)

A 2016 article in the blog Return to Now reports: ‘American slavery was technically abolished in 1865, but a loophole in the 13th Amendment has allowed it to continue “as a punishment for crimes” well into the 21st century. Not surprisingly, corporations have lobbied for a broader and broader definition of “crime” in the last 150 years. As a result, there are more (mostly dark-skinned) people performing mandatory, essentially unpaid, hard labor in America today than there were in 1830.’ The article goes on to name corporations that have benefitted from prison labor, including Whole Foods, McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Victoria’s Secret, AT&T, and BP (British Petroleum). The article continues: ‘While not all prisoners are “forced” to work, most “opt” to because life would be even more miserable if they didn’t, as they have to purchase pretty much everything above the barest necessities (and sometimes those too) with their hard-earned pennies. Some of them have legal fines to pay off and families to support on the outside. Often they come out more indebted than when they went in. In places like Texas, however, prison work is mandatory and unpaid – the literal definition of slave labor.’ (Source: Return to Now)


IWOC has more than 3000 contacts on Corrlinks. Thanks to your messages, we are able to pass on critical information and organize actions. But since we are a small group of volunteers, it is not possible to answer all messages promptly. If you have a message for the editors of this newsletter, please put ‘Freedom’s Cause’ in the subject line. We will be sure to read it, even if it takes a little while to get back to you.