Wisconsin gets failing grade for response to COVID-19 in jails, prisons

MADISON – Wisconsin received a failing grade for its response to COVID-19 in jails and prisons on Thursday despite having “ample time and information” to take necessary action.

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Policy Initiative examines and compares how all 50 states fared during the coronavirus pandemic in correctional facilities. 

Wisconsin was given an F+, the second-lowest score.

The grade is based on four factors: providing testing and personal protective equipment; reducing the incarcerated population;  accelerating the release of medically vulnerable individuals; and publishing updated and available data on COVID-19 in the state prison system.

Wisconsin lost points for not providing a detailed breakdown of daily reporting data and for the governor not issuing an executive order stopping jail admissions.

While the state has taken many actions to “flatten the curve,” prisons and jails have remained a point of concern for public health officials.

An April report showed that social distancing and stay-at-home orders would not be enough to reduce deaths from coronavirus if communities didn’t also reduce the number of people in jail.

Gov. Tony Evers took some action in an attempt to do so, releasing people around the state who were in jails for violating probation or parole and considering release for others with non-violent criminal charges.

Thursday’s report says it was not enough.

“The state’s failing grade reflects the glaring lack of urgency that various leaders and corrections officials have shown in their refusal to meaningfully address this crisis, even as it continues to grow in severity,” said Sean Wilson with the ACLU of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin was not alone in its poor grade — across the country, state responses ranged from disorganized or ineffective to nonexistent. And no state received a score higher than D-. 

“Even using states’ own versions of this story, it is clear that no state has done enough and that all states failed to implement a cohesive, system-wide response,” the report says. “No state leaders should be content with the steps they’ve taken thus far.”

Wisconsin saw a slight uptick in the number of coronavirus cases despite leveled-off testing Thursday, and was added to the list of states “trending poorly.”

In Wisconsin correctional facilities, 271 people who live and work in the facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to the Department of Corrections. Only nine cases of those cases are active. And as of June 19, mass testing was completed at 22 of the DOC’s 37 facilities.

“While we appreciate the ACLU’s work, the most important thing on which we are grading our department is the health and safety of our staff and those in our care,” DOC spokesman John Beard said. “And the numbers – 14,000 tests administered and nine active cases among persons in our care and staff combined, as of this afternoon — show we’ve had some success on that front.”

Regardless of the progress, Wilson said the state has neglected to release vulnerable people from custody, endangering the health of many.

He asked Evers and the Department of Corrections to take immediate action to stop the “public health catastrophe.”

“This report confirms what we already know to be true: Wisconsin has not done nearly enough to combat the spread of COVID-19 in our jails and prisons,” he said.