Inmates quarantined, prison medical workers sent home after doctor tests positive for coronavirus

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MADISON – Eighteen inmates have been quarantined and 11 prison medical workers have been sent home after a doctor at Waupun Correctional Institution was infected with coronavirus.    

“Be assured we as an institution and a department are taking this situation very seriously,” Warden Brian Foster told staff in an email late Wednesday.    

Foster was not specific in his email about who had been infected, but two people familiar with operations at the maximum-security prison said it was a doctor who had recently been out of the country.  

Rep. Michael Schraa, a Republican from Oshkosh who chairs the Assembly Corrections Committee, provided the details on the number of inmates and medical workers affected.

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Waupun is overcrowded and has the worst staff shortage among the state’s prison. An internal report this month showed one in four jobs at the prison were unfilled.

The prison holds more than 1,200 prisoners, putting it about 140% of the capacity it was built to hold. Illnesses can spread quickly in prisons because of close quarters. 

The prison has implemented a new cleaning process to ward off the illness, according to Foster. Anna Neal, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, did not immediately provide other details Thursday about how the agency is dealing with the incident.  

Foster provided employees with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said they do not need to take any action if they are not experiencing symptoms such as fever, coughing or difficulty breathing.

Those with symptoms should not come to work and those who are pregnant, have chronic illnesses or have weakened immune systems should consult with a doctor, according to the advice.

Inmate advocates push for release

The Waupun outbreak comes as advocates for inmates argue the state should release those behind bars who are most vulnerable to coronavirus. In a news release Thursday, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee argued it was not feasible to quarantine inmates because there is so little room available in the state’s overcrowded prisons. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin this week said more than 4,300 inmates incarcerated by the state are over 50, making them more vulnerable to complications from coronavirus.

Correction: This story has been corrected to say Waupun Correctional Institution is at about 140% of capacity. An earlier version said it was 140% overcapacity. 

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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