On March 12, Gov. 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. Our 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 the majority 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 distance.
Correctional employees–guards, kitchen workers, medical staff–are also at risk. A 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.
WISDOM and MOSES have repeatedly urged Gov. Evers and Department of Corrections Sec. Carr to reduce the prison population before catastrophe strikes. The Wisconsin Public Health Association also wrote Evers about the “urgent need to reduce population density. ”
Sec. Carr responded to the crisis with directives that bring about some improvement, but leave the vast majority of prisoners where they are: behind bars. Much more must be done, and it must be done quickly.
Gov. Evers and Sec. 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.
We call attention to the need to release older prisoners who are particularly vulnerable to the virus and who often have served long sentences. More than 1,500 prisoners are 60 years of age or older. Many others who present an extremely low risk to society can be released. We also note that Gov. Evers has considerable power to commute sentences. In other states, Secretaries of Corrections are considering furloughs, allowing some people to go home for a few months, until the crisis passes.
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 should do it now.