by Scott Gordon
This article was produced in partnership with Tone Madison.
Advocates for Wisconsin’s incarcerated people are losing patience with Governor Tony Evers as COVID-19 spreads throughout the state’s prisons and jails. Evers and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections have made some modest efforts since March to slow prison admissions and release people who were in prison for parole violations. This is only a fraction of what the Governor has the power to do—especially a Governor who ran on a proposal to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population. It hasn’t prevented major outbreaks at prisons including Waupun Correctional Institution in Dodge County and Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution in Sheboygan County. Local jails, including Dane County’s, have also had outbreaks. The DOC’s own numbers show that more than 5,000 incarcerated people and more than 1,100 staff have tested positive since March. State prison officials report that 10 incarcerated people have died, though activists say this might be lowballing it, due to some technicalities in how deaths are reported.
After months of letters, phone calls, a petition hand-delivered to Evers, and June’s “Drive to Decarcerate” protest in Madison, Evers failed to take further action or even come out publicly to acknowledge the problem. So organizers at WISDOM, a Milwaukee-based interfaith group working to end mass incarceration in Wisconsin, launched a vigil-like protest this October outside the Governor’s Mansion in Maple Bluff, a small affluent village that borders Madison. WISDOM’s goal is to post at least two protestors in front of the mansion every day, until Evers holds a press conference drawing attention to the problem. Those interested in taking part can sign up for shifts.
“All we’re asking right now is for the Governor to at least acknowledge that there’s a problem, and acknowledge that this is really a serious issue, and to state if he intends to do anything else about it,” says David Liners, State Director for WISDOM.
Rulings from the Wisconsin Supreme Court and stubborn inaction from the Republican-led Wisconsin Legislature have frustrated many of Evers’ efforts to contain COVID-19. But when it comes to prisons, Evers can act quickly and unilaterally. He can’t blame other branches of government for getting in the way—thanks to the Governor’s ability to issue pardons and commute sentences.
“This is an area where the Governor has enormous power,” Liners says. “The Governor has the power to commute sentences. There was a recent opinion by the Legislative Reference Bureau basically saying that the legislature and the courts have no standing to review those decisions.” Overall, Liners thinks well of Evers’ COVID response, “but when it comes to the prisons, he sounds the way his political opponents sound about COVID for everybody—a big shoulder shrug.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon at the Governor’s Mansion, Ellen Magee and Dan Fitch (a Madison DSA member and a friend of mine) were holding down the fort.
“I’ve been very concerned about COVID in the jails and the prisons,” Magee says. “I’ve written quite a few letters about it, and I have enough risk factors that I can’t really feel safe going to big protests, so this felt like a safe way to protest.” Magee also published a letter in The Capital Times this April calling attention to the role of ICE in mass incarceration in the pandemic context.
Harsh sentencing measures, Wisconsin’s aggressive use of revocation holds for people accused of parole or probation violations, and the vulnerabilities of sick or elderly incarcerated people have contributed to the COVID crisis in Wisconsin’s prisons. Not to mention that infected prison staff are going back into their communities, likely contributing to the state’s continually nightmarish level of cases and deaths. Prison staff could also be carrying it in—a real danger in all Wisconsin communities, and especially in areas where people flout COVID precautions as a political gesture.
“There’s people in there that really the judges didn’t intend to stay… those cases would be so easy to, I don’t know what you need to do, just pardon them or whatever you can do,” Magee says. “There’s people that are even bedridden in prison. Duh!”
COVID in prisons is a nationwide crisis, one that underscores the inherent inhumanity of the carceral system. Even so, it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is in Wisconsin. State and local officials around the country have taken steps, some more effective than others, to reduce prison and jail populations during the pandemic. (A research project at UCLA Law has documented in great detail how different states are responding to COVID in prisons.)
“Republican Governors in other states have done more than [Evers] has, and that’s bizarre to me,” Fitch says. “There’s people who are near the end of their sentences that could be released. There’s people who are elderly and more at risk that could be released. We’re not making the world more safe by keeping these people in prison.”
The protests are less about size or volume than about steady, sustained insistence. The Wisconsin Governor’s Mansion can feel like an odd place for a protest, because it’s so tucked away on a quiet street in one of Dane County’s enclaves of wealth. Maple Bluff might be comparatively liberal for such an expensive area, but it’s still not the first place you’d go looking for supporters of radical de-carceration.
“I mean, about half the people give us a thumbs-up. Most people just pretend like we’re not here,” Magee says.
“And there’s a few people who give you the shake of the head, or ‘I disagree’ or ‘never gonna happen,'” Fitch adds.
Strangely enough, both Liners and Peggy West-Schroder, Statewide Campaign Coordinator for WISDOM’s Ex Incarcerated People Organizing, are actually heartened by the response they’ve experienced from Maple Bluffers. “We had a couple of people who even kind of argued with us and then came back another day and said, ‘You know what? I looked into this and I understand what you guys are saying. How can I help?'” Liners recalls.
“I feel like the neighbors have been our number-one cheerleaders,” West-Schroder says. “I feel like if the neighbors could help us at all, they have, or they would. They stop by, they ask why we’re standing out there, they kind of ask sometimes why we have skin in the game, and then they ask how they can help, and then we always tell them that we want for them to call the Governor and ask the Governor to release people, and we want for the Governor to hold a press conference regarding his handling of COVID of our prisons, and [give a] justification as to why he hasn’t released anybody, specifically when there are other states that are doing so much.” (Not all the neighbors are friendly: According to Fitch, Capitol Police told protestors that some have complained and are using a local ordinance in an attempt to take down signs protestors have arranged along the mansion’s front fence.)
Evers has other tools at his disposal here. He could work with the state Parole Commission to speed up the processing of incarcerated people who are already eligible for parole, and in some cases are over-serving their sentences. West-Schroder notes that pressure from activists and families of incarcerated people did get the DOC to release more frequent data updates on COVID cases and deaths in state prisons.
WISDOM continues to gather its own numbers as well. West-Schroder is glad to see data coming out, but is skeptical about the level of transparency at work here, and with good reason: Prisons and jails are among the most opaque corners of American government. There is also a possible blind spot in the DOC data. It relies on determinations from local medical examiners. But West-Schroder says that a hospital only has to report a death to a medical examiner if it happened within 24 hours of a patient’s admission. That means if an incarcerated person gets transferred to a local hospital with COVID, but stays for longer than 24 hours, then dies, it might not get back to a medical examiner.
Liners says that WISDOM is willing to keep this quiet, continuous protest going even into the winter if necessary, though he hopes Evers takes action before that.
“We’ve had some people say, ‘You’re just being opportunists. You just want to reduce the prison population, and now you’re just using COVID-19 as an excuse,'” Liners says. “And it’s like, no, it’s just another good reason to do something that we should have been doing anyhow… there were several really good reasons, now there’s one more huge reason to do the right thing.”