Prisons mismanage COVID-19 crisis

February 7, 2021

by Robert Taliaferro

A recent personal email expressed surprise and anger with how the COVID-19 pandemic has been addressed within prisons. The email noted that one would think prisons were safe as they are the ultimate bubble. This is far from the truth as prisons have always been the preeminent super-spreader event.

A recent report published by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a prison advocacy group in Massachusetts, noted that since March an estimated 230,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons around the country have tested positive for COVID-19. This has resulted in nearly 1,700 prisoner deaths. Additionally, almost 60,000 prison staff have tested positive, with over 100 staff deaths.

In Wisconsin the positive test percentage in the state’s population is about 8% per capita, but in Wisconsin prisons, the positive rate is over 50% of the current prison population or 10,400 of the state’s 20,000 prison population, according to statistics recently published by the Wisconsin State Journal (WSJ). This had resulted in at least 25 prisoner deaths due to COVID-19.

Nationwide the positive rate of infection is around 5% to 6% of the general community population. Comparatively, 10% of the U.S. prison population has tested positive and Wisconsin actually has 5% of the nation’s total prison population’s positive cases itself.

The WSJ highlighted how the mismanagement of the virus in one facility created a nearly 100% infection rate at the facility and at least one death.

Recent tests at another facility in the state exhibited similar patterns of those infected due to the way the virus protocol was managed. For instance, in one unit of 46 prisoners, only six prisoners had positive tests in mid-December, and the vector of how the virus caused those positives could be identified. At the time this was 13% of that particular unit.

The facility was put on a lockdown where both positive and negative prisoners were quarantined together, some in the same room! The result was that in this one unit alone the positivity rate jumped from six to a total of 40 positive cases, or 87% of the unit’s population over a 12-day period. Fortunately, everyone recovered in this unit, though at least two COVID-related deaths have occurred at the facility during the same time.

As in most Wisconsin prisons, overcrowding and mismanagement of the COVID crisis resulted in otherwise healthy people being placed in a situation to get sick. This goes for staff as well and is not just restricted to Wisconsin; as the numbers in the PPI report note, this is a nationwide failure.

The CDC has made recommendations about who should be in phases 1A, 1B, and 1C for the vaccines, which includes recommendations on how to vaccinate both prison staff and prisoners.

According to the PPI, about 40 states have plans in place for those vaccinations; Wisconsin is one of the 10 states that, according to that report, have no viable plans in place, a fact confirmed by the Wisconsin State Journal article.

In fact, the only comprehensive plan that is consistently applied in Wisconsin prisons is imposing mass quarantines that have gotten more people infected inside, which threatens the community. It stands to reason that if prisoners are testing positive due to how this crisis is being handled, this also creates a risk for line staff, their families, and the community at large.

Of course, that all goes along with the national failures, when it comes to dealing with the COVID pandemic both in and out of prison. This is reprehensible on the part of the leadership of this, and other, states and the nation as a whole, regardless of the party.

It is time that those in charge assume some level of accountability in the way the COVID crisis in prisons has been mishandled, even if it amounts to civil and criminal charges being filed by family members in the case of prisoner deaths caused by how the states chose to address COVID-19 for confined persons in their care.


Author’s note: On December 17, 2020, I tested negative for COVID-19; 12 days later after being retested, I had a positive result after the facility I am located in was placed on quarantine. I have since recovered.

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