Freedom’s Cause #38 – April 11, 2021


As of Friday, April 9, the count of active positive cases among incarcerated persons stands at  14 (down from 31 three weeks ago). 937 persons are in quarantine (up from 895), and 20 are in isolation (down from 32). The number of reported deaths has risen to 26. Active positive cases are reported in Chippewa Valley (1), DCI (9), JCI (2), RCI/Sturtevant (1), and Thompson (1). The total count of positive tests for incarcerated persons has reached 10, 931 (up from 10, 902). Among staff members, there are 16 active cases (up from 11). The total number of staff cases has risen from 2,502 to 2,520. (Source: DOC official site)


(April 2) Emily and Ben hosted the first episode of ‘Wisconsin Prison Voices’, a podcast created by Milwaukee IWOC. They reviewed the course of the COVID pandemic in Wisconsin prisons, calling it a “crisis by design.” They also discussed the ways that prisoners and activists organized to fight the spread of the disease. To compose the episode, Emily and Ben relied on numerous reports from incarcerated persons. The podcast has been archived on the website. 


(April 11) Even as Wisconsin has expanded eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone 16 and older, one group is lagging far behind others: prisoners. Fewer than 1,400 prisoners in the state had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, even though state officials prioritized inmates for vaccine access due to concerns about widespread outbreaks in prisons. Just 1,382 prisoners incarcerated in state Department of Corrections facilities had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Monday, online records show. That’s only about 7% of the population of some 19,470 prisoners incarcerated in Wisconsin — far behind the 33% of the state’s general population that as of Monday had received at least one dose of vaccine. Prisoners and others in congregate living facilities were prioritized by state officials as part of “Phase 1B” of Wisconsin’s rollout. That means people who are incarcerated have been eligible to get doses of COVID-19 vaccine since March 1. Tim Muth, staff attorney for ACLU of Wisconsin, noted that the group has been critical of corrections officials’ approach to the pandemic “The one thing that seemed to be a thing they were doing right was having the incarcerated population up on the priority list of eligibility in the state, and yet it looks from these numbers like they’re clearly not following through the prioritization that they established,” Muth said. (Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)


(April 11) Variants of the coronavirus spreading in prisons have also become a major concern.

The Detroit Free Press reported late last month that nearly 40% of B.1.1.7 cases, a more contagious strain first identified in the United Kingdom, were associated with outbreaks at Michigan prisons. Vaccination rates among prisoners have been lagging around the country. Less than 20% of state and federal prisoners have been vaccinated, according to a recent report by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. In some states, prisoners and advocates have resorted to lawsuits to get access. And other states have reported high vaccine refusal rates among prisoners. In Wisconsin, correctional workers — who became eligible along with police officers and firefighters in mid-January — have much higher vaccination rates than inmates. More than 4,100 correctional staffers have been vaccinated, (DOC spokesman John) Beard said. He added that local health departments are the primary vaccinator for correctional staffers, so most are being vaccinated outside the workplace and the number of workers who’ve gotten a shot is likely higher. (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)


(March 25) The number of inmates in Wisconsin’s prisons dropped dramatically last year as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, declining to levels not seen in more than 20 years, according to a report released Thursday by the Wisconsin Policy Forum. The adult prison population fell nearly 16% from the end of February 2020 to the end of last month, according to state Department of Corrections data compiled in the report. The inmate population fell every month during that year and stood at 19,581 at the end of last month, the lowest point since the end of October 1999. The numbers include prisoners held under contract in county jails. The number of inmates in county jails also declined. The average daily jail population fell 35% between April 2019 and April 2020, from 12,871 to 8,338. Jails in 18 counties saw their population decline by at least half. The drop in jail inmates was immediate, declining by 3,832 inmates between February and April 2020. The decline mirrored a decrease in the number of jail inmates nationwide. The report attributed the declines to tactics designed to slow COVID-19. Gov. Tony Evers issued an emergency order blocking all new admissions to state prisons in March 2020. As of mid-February of this year, about 1,250 male inmates sentenced to prison had still not been transferred from jail. Courts also slowed the pace of trials and fewer people have had their extended supervision revoked. On the jail side, the report said a large number of prisoners were released from detention to slow the spread of the disease and placed on electronic monitoring or some other form of supervision. Milwaukee County, which routinely holds more than double the average daily population of any other county, limited jail admissions to exclude people charged with misdemeanor crimes and increased electronic monitoring as an alternative for inmates granted work-release privileges. The report found the number of jail inmates ticked upward in the second half of 2020, perhaps reflecting an increase in gun violence and homicides as well as a backlog in trials and prison transfers. (Source: Associated Press)


(April 1) A conservative legal group told the head of the state prison system Thursday that his agency risked a lawsuit if it did not alter its COVID-19 policies and allow ministers to visit prisoners in person. In a letter, the leaders of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty told Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr he needed to provide Catholic inmates the opportunity to make confessions to priests in person as Easter approaches. Members of other denominations deserve similar opportunities to meet with faith leaders, they argued. The Department of Corrections in March 2020 barred visits from clergy to limit the spread of the coronavirus and that ban remains in place, according to the letter from WILL President Rick Esenberg and Deputy Counsel Anthony LoCoco. “While the illegality of such a draconian policy should be self-evident, we are sending this letter to confirm that the DOC is indeed violating state and federal statutory and constitutional law by indefinitely denying inmates the basic freedom to exercise their religion,” they wrote. They argued the policy is particularly unjust because lawyers, social workers and psychologists are allowed to meet with inmates in person. While prisoners may be able to meet with their institutions’ chaplain, they often have a different faith than those chaplains, they wrote. (Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)


From a contact in SCI: “I see an inquiry was made from JCI (in FC #37) as to why they do not have access to briefs on West Law.The restrictions are so much beyond this. Apparently, though available from West Law, the DOC contract package with West Law does not allow access to: a) restatements of Law and various treatises; b) state circuit or appellate court briefs, writs, or petitions; c) state circuit court decisions and orders; d) tribal court materialⁿ (e.g. briefs, appellate decisions, treaties, etc.) e) various law journals (e.g. Georgetown, Harvard Law, etc.); f) federal district or circuit court appellate briefs…. I have compiled a collection of decisions from various jurisdictions, declaring amongst other points, ‘7 hours a week or less is unreasonable’. I’ve presented these authorities to SCI Administration, ICE Investigator and Reviewing Authority, and other Madison Officials. All dismissed my pleas with responses from, ‘the available resources are unable to accommodate more access’; to, ‘we are operating [in accordance with] your referenced policies’; and, ‘under 309.155, special provisions are given in the form of Extra Law Time.’ I’m sure all would benefit from this issue being addressed on behalf of inmates statewide through the voice of concerned citizens. The ability to meaningfully access the courts begins with the ability to learn the processes and nuances of those courts. Requiring one to be within an arbitrary 30 day court deadline, before granting an additional eight 45 min. sessions (6 hrs.), does not satisfy this.”


(April 8) Shortly before COVID-19 vaccinations began in January at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, officials held town hall meetings for inmates about the vaccines and put up informational posters around the facility. Yet when vaccination time came, 212 of the nearly 550 inmates who were offered the shots refused to take them, according to federal prison officials, shining a light on prisoners’ skepticism of the vaccine that is permeating many correctional institutions in the country. In Massachusetts, more than 5,500 state and county prisoners have refused the vaccines, compared with nearly 7,800 who have received the first of two doses, officials say. Inmate advocates and researchers say prison systems need to do more to educate prisoners about the vaccines, as available data and surveys show that many inmates decline or express hesitancy about getting the shots. Efforts should include bringing in outside experts and trusted community members, especially people of color, not just passing out flyers and having talks by prison staff, they say. In North Carolina, state prison officials offered incentives to inmates to get vaccinated, including five days off their sentences, credits at canteens, extra visits from relatives and more phone privileges. Half the nearly 29,000 state prisoners have received vaccination shots so far during the ongoing vaccine rollout, said John Bull, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety. (Source: Associated Press)

(April 4) A reservoir in Florida that holds nearly 400 million gallons of wastewater from a former phosphate mine was leaking on Saturday, prompting hundreds of evacuations, the authorities said.Crews were “doing their best to control the outflow” of contaminated water into a creek at Piney Point in Florida, the site of a former phosphate mine that is south of Tampa, said Vanessa Baugh, the chairwoman of the Manatee County Commission. The spillage was an “imminent hazard” that posed “an immediate and substantial danger to human health, safety, welfare and the environment,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, who issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency. The Manatee County jail was in the evacuation zone but was not being evacuated. Randy Warren, a spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, said that relocating inmates and staff members to upper levels of the facility was “our best option right now” and that “sandbags and other precautions were put in place around the jail property.” (Source: New York Times) (Note: Fortunately, the breach did not occur, and the evacuation order was lifted on April 6. IWOC organized a phone zap in support of the endangered prisoners.)