‘He’d rather be in the hole at Redgranite’: A mother shares her son’s account of a coronavirus lockdown in a Milwaukee jail

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Cheryl Fountaine-Kempf of Appleton said her son normally calls her from jail every day, but after his transfer to the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility last month there was suddenly a stretch of days when she didn’t hear from him.

Then on Saturday, he called.

“He said he’s in a dry cell with three other guys, no sink to wash your hands,” she said. “They’re only letting people out for 45 minutes to make calls every three days. The meals are brought to the cells. There’s no TV, nothing.”    

She said her son also leaves his cell for escorted bathroom breaks.

The restrictions followed a lockdown ordered at the facility, known as MSDF, on March 26 after a corrections officer tested positive for COVID-19. 

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Fountaine-Kempf said besides the concern over a possible coronavirus infection, she said her son, who has spent more than five years in various prisons over the past decade, said the mental anguish among inmates cooped up so long has been awful.

“He said he’d rather be in the hole at Redgranite,” referring to the state prison where her son had served the custodial portion of his sentence for third-degree sexual assault before he was released on extended supervision more than three years ago. 

Now it appears the state Department of Corrections, which runs MSDF, might be moving to get people like Fountaine-Kempf’s son — who is taking classes as an alternative to revocation of extended supervision — out of the facility to lessen the population facing potential COVID-19 infections.

The DOC had not announced such actions and officials there did not immediately return emails Wednesday morning.

She said that on Tuesday, her son called to say everyone in his program was told to contact family and their probation officers about getting out. Fountaine-Kempf said her son’s probation officer hadn’t even heard that but got working immediately with a social worker on a release plan that would move her son to Fountaine-Kempf’s home for 14 days of quarantine before he could move in with his father, in his 60s, in a more rural area.

MSDF is a high-rise, medium-security facility in downtown Milwaukee, kitty-corner from the Milwaukee County Jail with a capacity of more than 1,000. Many inmates are there for an alternative to revocation, or ATR, programming. If they complete it successfully, they can often return to community supervision.

They are the kinds of lower-public safety risks some have advocated getting out of jails and prisons facing potentially disastrous spreads of COVID-19 among incarcerated populations.

MSDF also houses some regular inmates within a year of completing their sentences who are expected to be released in the Milwaukee area.

On March 23, Gov. Tony Evers issued a moratorium on new admissions to the Department of Corrections adult and juvenile facilities.

Fountaine-Kempf said her son had been on extended supervision more than three years, with a job and his own apartment, when his probation officer found him in violation of conditions of his release over his relationship with a woman he thought he wanted to marry. He was not charged with any crimes.

He had been in the Outagamie County Jail since November, and had gotten in a fight there. His probation officer proposed he enroll in a 90-day program at MSDF as an alternative to revocation and a return to prison for the remaining year of his sentence.

“He was happy to go,” Fountaine-Kempf said. He arrived at MSDF on March 12, the same day Gov. Evers’ declared a statewide health emergency. The next day, her son learned the program he came for might be shortened or canceled.

The program began last week. Her son said he was in the middle of class on the third day when DOC started the stringent lockdown after the MSDF staffer tested positive.

“He said it was like nothing else he’d ever seen in prison,” Fountaine-Kempf said. “He said it was like martial law.”

Contact Bruce Vielmetti at (414) 224-2187 or bvielmetti@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ProofHearsay.

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