Wisconsin prisons increase COVID-19 testing, quarantines
MADISON — All prisoners and staff in Wisconsin’s 36 adult prisons will be tested for COVID-19 under the state Department of Corrections’ plan to resume more normal operations.
The new procedures include quarantining new prisoners and transfers for 14 days, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Thursday. The department resumed accepting new prisoners and accepting transfers on Monday, after a moratorium that Gov. Tony Evers issued on March 23 expired. Visits from friends and family remain suspended.
The department is also about a third of the way through its plan that started in May to test all 21,800 adult inmates. So far, 259 inmates have tested positive and 43 have recovered. Most of those who tested positive, 225, were at the Waupun Correctional Institution.
“I think that Waupun Correctional has done everything in their power to try to prevent it, but just like in the community, there are times in which there might be spread,” said Makda Fessahaye, administrator for the Division of Adult Institutions. At the time of testing, the “greater majority” of those who tested positive were not showing any symptoms, Fessahaye said.
She declined to say whether any of the prisoners had been hospitalized or describe the severity of the cases, citing privacy laws. As of Wednesday, no inmates had died from COVID-19, Fessahaye confirmed.
Peg Swan. founder of Forum for Understanding Prisons, a nonprofit that advocates for inmates. said Waupun “couldn’t have done it worse about spreading the virus.” Waupun Correctional was the first prison to have a staff member test positive for COVID-19.
Inmate advocacy groups also criticized the corrections department for its initial lack of testing. By May 7, DOC had only tested around 150 inmates.
The National Guard is assisting with the testing of both inmates and all staff. So far, 57 department employees had tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday.
Despite frustration from inmates about the danger guards could be putting them in, the corrections department is not requiring all of its staff to wear masks. Fessahaye said staff in certain posts and positions, including those who work in the quarantine areas, transportation and food service, are required to wear masks. Those who have had close contact with inmates exposed to the virus or potential exposure out in the community are also required to wear masks.
According to the state Department of Health Services, Wisconsin has seen 19,892 cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday, an increase of nearly 500 cases since Wednesday, and 626 deaths. Of 11,656 tests DHS recorded between Wednesday and Thursday, 4.1% were positive, the first day since Monday that the total percentage of positives has increased.
Evers told reporters on a conference call Thursday that if positive tests continue to plateau around 2% to 5% it will be difficult to determine whether infection rates are declining. DHS Chief Medical Officer Ryan Westergaard said on the call that even though the statewide positive percentage looks good the disease still hasn’t bottomed out and infections are still common.