After months of woefully insufficient government action, the COVID-19 crisis in Wisconsin prisons has spiraled out of control. As of last week, at least 19 incarcerated people have died from the virus, with more than 11,000 individuals, including 2,000 corrections staff, contracting the disease.
As the virus surges in Wisconsin and across the country, it is critical that our public health response serves ALL of us, including those who are in custody. Up until now, the safety and well-being of the prison population have been largely left out of consideration, as state leaders apparently find it acceptable to leave tens of thousands of people – many of them in poor health and already vulnerable – in dire straits, languishing in facilities that are exceptionally ill-suited and overcrowded to cope with this crisis.
But if elected officials think they can just quietly sweep their neglect of incarcerated people under the rug, they're wrong. The ACLU and countless other Wisconsinites have been sounding the alarm over the state's failed response, and we will continue to hold them accountable.
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The tragedy unfolding in our prisons doesn't have to be this dire. There are steps that Governor Evers could take to mitigate its impact and save many lives. He could use his executive authority to commute the sentences of people who are within a year of going home, grant compassionate release to elderly individuals and those with chronic health conditions who are at greatest risk, and stop transferring people from jails to prisons. This would make social distancing in our prisons possible, reduce the footprint of mass incarceration, and slow the spread of coronavirus not only in jails and prisons but across the state writ large.
The more people in correctional facilities who get infected, the more strained our local hospitals become, leading to an increase in the community spread of the virus during a time in which our healthcare system is already on the brink. We must get the prison pandemic under control for the sake of all Wisconsinites.
Governor Evers has a moral and professional responsibility to do more to protect those in prison. Send him a message now and demand that he steps up to meet the challenges of this moment. <[link removed]> We need his leadership now more than ever. Lives are at stake.
Smart Justice Campaign Manager
ACLU of Wisconsin