The state said it would stop work release to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but some prisoners are still being bused to their jobs

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Nearly a month after the Department of Corrections announced it was ending work release in the hope of stopping the spread of COVID-19, prisoners from at least two facilities continue to be bused to jobs at a Menomonee Falls warehouse, the Journal Sentinel has confirmed.

The men are working side by side with non-inmates at Union Supply Group, a company that contracts with the Department of Corrections to run its canteen program, which sells snacks and hygiene items to prisoners around the state.

The situation puts the public at risk, said David Larsen, associate professor of public health at Syracuse University.

“Here, with work release, you’re increasing risk of transmission for the rest of the prisoners, the guards — everybody,” he said. 

There is also a risk of infection for the wider community, he said.

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Due to the pandemic, demand for many canteen items, including soap, vitamins and cleaning supplies, has increased. Under the state’s contract with Union Supply, the corrections department gets a 10% commission on every item purchased.

Businesses such as Union Supply have been deemed essential under Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order, which calls on people to limit their interactions to members of their immediate households. 

“We have to stop this virus from spreading any further,” state Health Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said at a March 24 media briefing announcing the order. “Limiting your contact to less than five people will help do that. Not five people at a time, but five people total.”

Ten work-release inmates are working at Union Supply, which has a total of about 30 employees, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Anna Neal.

Five of them are among about 60 people living at Marshall E. Sherrer Correctional Center. The other five are housed at Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center with about 100 others. Both Sherrer and Chaney are minimum-security prisons in downtown Milwaukee.

“We would likely experience challenges in the delivery of canteen items to all of the institutions and centers on time without those in our care continuing this critical operation,” Neal said in an email. “As you can imagine, getting canteen to those in our care is essential, especially given the circumstances with COVID-19.”

So far, no COVID-19 cases have been reported at either Sherrer or Chaney. Private businesses don’t have to publicly report confirmed cases.

Those 10 men are not the only ones leaving prisons to go to work, according to Neal. Four inmates are working at a company that provides supplies to hospitals.

Sixty-nine prisoners working for the Bureau of Correctional Enterprises have also kept their jobs, she said. The bureau, which is run by the Department of Corrections, operates within correctional institutions. It trains inmates in 11 different industries as well as farming and warehouse work, according to the bureau’s website.

Neal said she could not immediately answer the question of where the other men are on work release are incarcerated.

John Son, vice president of business affairs and legal counsel for Union Supply Group, did not respond to a voicemail message left Thursday.

Because prisons are crowded environments where it is nearly impossible to do adequate infection control, they are notorious for the spread of infection, experts agree.

The best way to stem that risk is to limit contact with the outside world as much as possible. If prison employees aren’t extremely careful, they can bring the virus inside. Inmate workers are even more vulnerable. Not only are they living in close quarters with a lot of people, but they are also interacting with civilian co-workers, each of whom has their own family and may or may not be practicing social distancing outside of work.

“By their nature, prisons are close, confined spaces, often unsanitary, where people are in a tight network of physical contact. … It’s not a place where you can do infection control in any real way,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale University.

“Once it gets in, it’s going to be hard to contain.”

Stopping work release, but not all of it

Last month, the corrections department announced it was taking several steps to slow the spread of coronavirus, including putting a stop to in-person visits and “work release in the private sector,” according to a statement from Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr on the department’s website.

“Our agency is taking this situation very seriously, and we continue to seek appropriate and timely actions to mitigate the potential exposure to others and in order to keep those in our care safe,” the statement says. “I understand the serious implications of the COVID-19, and DOC is following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for management of COVID-19 in correctional facilities.”

According to the CDC website, one of those guidelines is this: “Suspend all transfers of incarcerated/detained persons to and from other jurisdictions and facilities (including work release where relevant), unless necessary for medical evaluation, medical isolation/quarantine, care, extenuating security concerns, or to prevent overcrowding.”

Neal called Wisconsin’s exceptions to the suspension of work release “minimal.” She acknowledged them after a Journal Sentinel reporter independently verified that five Sherrer inmates were working at Union Supply.

When the shift at the company’s Menomonee Falls warehouse ended at 4:30 p.m. Monday, a few dozen workers walked out of the building. Some wore masks or had them hanging around their necks. Some did not. Most of the workers walked to their cars or to vehicles waiting to pick them up.

About 10 workers congregated outside the door, smoking and talking. They did not maintain six feet of distance from each other, as recommended by health experts during the coronavirus pandemic. After about 15 minutes, five of those men got into a silver van that had been parked in the lot. One of them got into the driver’s seat. A reporter noted the number on the license plate and the plate’s red background, which indicates the vehicle is owned by the state.

At 5:15 p.m. the next day, the same van with the same plate pulled up to the front door of Sherrer Correctional with the same men inside. Four of them got out and went into the prison. The fifth, who was driving, pulled toward the parking lot, which is obscured by a fence.

Warehouse supplies items to prisoners

California-based Union Supply was awarded the state contract to provide canteen services to the Department of Corrections in 2018.

Under the contract, the company provides prisoners with a list of items for sale, such as toothpaste, mouthwash, tuna, and candy bars. These items supplement meals and hygiene items provided by the institutions.

At the Menomonee Falls warehouse, workers put each inmate’s order into a bag labeled with his or her name and location. The packages are then transferred to trucks, dropped off at the prisons and distributed to the inmates.

The prices are higher than what people on the outside pay and include a 10% markup that goes back to the Department of Corrections. A bar of ivory soap, for example, costs 58 cents, according to a 2018 canteen price list. Purchased in a package of 10 at Target, the same bar would cost 39 cents. A package of ramen noodles costs an inmate 25 cents. Before the coronavirus pandemic increased demand, that same item could be purchased for 10 cents at some grocery stores.

The 10% markup was listed as a requirement in the department’s request for proposals, which is posted online. 

In the wake of COVID-19, the maximum amount prisoners may spend on canteen items has increased from $42 a week to $50. In his statement, Carr said the increase was one of the “ways we can improve conditions for staff and those we care for during this time.”

Some inmates and family members have said purchasing extra soap, vitamins and cleaning supplies is the only way they can stay clean amid the coronavirus outbreak, which already has been confirmed among staff or inmates in at least four prisons.

“They’re using the same rag to wipe things down,” said Tanya Brandt, 40, whose husband is incarcerated at New Lisbon Correctional Institution. “The only soap they can get is the soap they can buy.”

The increase in spending limits has likely increased the workload at Union Supply’s Menomonee Falls warehouse.

Inmates who work there are paid $13 per hour, Neal said. The same wage was listed in online help-wanted postings for full- and part-time workers at the warehouse.

Health risks feared

Sherrer Correctional inmate William Black recently filed a motion for sentence modification with the parole board, contending the continuation of work release for people there has placed his health at risk.

The inmates working at Union Supply are being re-admitted to the prison “with no safeguard or testing, thus increasing the chance of myself and others being infected by the coronavirus … getting sick and possibly dying,” he wrote.

He’s right to be concerned, experts say.

As of Thursday afternoon, nine prison employees and four inmates in Wisconsin had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the corrections department. But that is almost certainly an undercount, considering the small number of tests that have been done, according to Larsen, the Syracuse epidemiologist.

Of the approximately 23,000 people incarcerated in the state, just 92 had been tested as of Thursday. In addition to the five positive tests, 25 were pending and 62 had come back negative, according to the Department of Corrections website.

Between 20% and 50% of people carrying the coronavirus have no symptoms, Larsen said. That means far more people are becoming infected than we know about.

“So when you see a known case, it should spark an alarm because the confirmed, the known cases, that’s just the beginning of all this hidden transmission that’s occurring,” he said. “Over the next few weeks, any time you get a known case an alarm should be raised.”

Contact Gina Barton at (414) 224-2125 or gbarton@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @writerbarton. 

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