On March 12, Governor Evers signed an Executive Order declaring a public health emergency due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We can be proud of our response. Citizens quickly undertook methods of social distancing and continue the hard work of protecting themselves and each other.
One of the most vulnerable groups in our state remains at great risk, however. Our prisons house approximately 23,000 inmates. For most of them, social distancing is impossible. Some are in barrack-like rooms with beds closer than the required six feet and others are in cramped cells. Prisoners eat together at tables and in dining areas that offer no opportunities for distancing.
Thousands of prisoners in our 36 state prisons could be released immediately and safely to their communities. More than 1,500 prisoners are 60 years of age or older and at high risk for COVID-19 as are infirmed prisoners. Many of them have already served long sentences. The Parole Board could expedite releasing hundreds who are eligible for parole. People who have been incarcerated not for committing a crime but for breaking a rule could be released. All of these can be released and would be an extremely low risk to society. Governor Evers has considerable power to commute sentences as well. In other states, Secretaries of Corrections are considering furloughs, allowing some people to go home for a few months until the crisis passes.
Members of WISDOM and of our local group, JOB, have repeatedly urged Governor Evers and Secretary Carr, Department of Corrections, to reduce the prison population before a catastrophe strikes. The Wisconsin Public Health Association also wrote Governor Evers about the “urgent need to reduce population density.”
Secretary Carr responded to the crisis with directives that bring about some improvement but leave most prisoners where they are—behind bars. Much more must be done and must be done quickly. Governor Evers and Secretary Carr convene judges, county and parole officials and Corrections personnel to cut through red tape for things like “compassionate release” and other measures, including clemency, that can be implemented quickly and bring about substantial change. Correctional employees—guards, kitchen workers, medical staff—are also at risk. Virus in a prison will not remain within its walls, and the walls will not keep it out. It will be carried to the surrounding communities, threatening the lives of those residents and overwhelming the capacity of its hospitals and health care systems.
Will the hospitals in the communities where these prisons are located have the capacity to care for seriously ill prisoners? Governor Evers and Secretary Carr have the authority they need to save lives by safely and quickly reducing the populations of our overcrowded prisons. They need to do it now.
Contact Governor Evers at GovPress@wisconsin.gov or 608-219-7443.