Inmates and ACLU ask Wisconsin Supreme Court to release prisoners over coronavirus concerns

MADISON – The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin asked the state Supreme Court on Friday to force Gov. Tony Evers’ administration to release inmates to mitigate the spread of coronavirus and protect vulnerable prisoners.

The lawsuit contends one inmate with kidney disease and another with cardiac disease are being put at serious risk by being kept in a prison system where the illness is spreading. 

Ordinarily, lawsuits are filed in circuit court and take months or years to get to the state Supreme Court. But the inmates and ACLU are presenting their case directly to the high court in hopes it will deal with the issue quickly because the coronavirus pandemic is widening around the globe. 

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The court, which is controlled 5-2 by conservatives, has discretion on whether to take the case. If it doesn’t, the inmates could file a similar lawsuit in circuit court. 

Five inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at two Department of Corrections facilities as of Friday morning, according to the department’s website — two at Columbia Correctional Institution and three at Oshkosh Correctional Institution.

A dozen Department of Corrections employees have tested positive, including five at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility, three at Columbia and one at Waupun Correctional Institution. Three workers at the Milwaukee office of community corrections also tested positive. 

The lawsuit asks the court to require the Democratic governor and his administration to release inmates using pardons and parole, arguing that doing so is required to avoid unconstitutionally subjecting inmates to cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU wants priority given to those who are 60 or older and those who are at higher risk of developing severe complications if they are infected with coronavirus.

The lawsuit also asks the court to require jails and prisons to adhere to health guidelines set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and make judges consider the health implications of sentencing offenders to incarceration during the pandemic.

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Those bringing the suit want the court to appoint an official to ensure that no inmates are held together in one cell and that there is at least 6 feet of separation between every bed in dormitory areas. That would be difficult to achieve because of long-standing overcrowding in Wisconsin’s prisons. 

The inmates bringing the lawsuit are Craig Sussek, who was sentenced to 80 years in prison in 1996 for attempted homicide and burglary, and Raymond Ninneman, who has a little over a year left of a two-year sentence for drunken driving. Sussek has kidney disease and Ninneman’s heart functions at about 25% because of cardiac disease, according to the lawsuit. 

“My dad has just 16 months left on his sentence and I’m terrified that COVID-19 will turn that into a death sentence,” Ninneman’s daughter, Rana Ninneman, said in a statement.

Also bringing the lawsuit are the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Disability Rights Wisconsin. Milwaukee attorney Ellen Henak is assisting with the case. 

The lawsuit was brought against Evers, Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr and Parole Commission Chairman John Tate II. The administration did not immediately respond to questions about the lawsuit. 

Bruce Vielmetti of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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

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