Calvin Johnson spent his final weeks at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution wracked in pandemic anxiety, a former cellmate recalled. He closely tracked COVID-19’s spread in and outside of the medium-security state prison — eyeing daily infection counts in surrounding Crawford County and across Wisconsin.

Johnson, who grew up in Milwaukee and was affectionately called “Chicken,” wore a mask at all times, even when it wasn’t required. Hearing the slightest cough would put him on edge within the cramped cell that he shared with three other inmates, said Randy Forsterling, one of the cellmates. Johnson, 52, lived with high blood pressure, asthma, sleep apnea and the sense that the coronavirus would kill him.

“I was given 13 years for my crime. I was not given a death sentence,” Johnson, who was convicted of armed robbery in 2016, wrote in an Oct. 19 request to modify his sentence for health reasons. “I feel that the precautions the Department of Corrections has put into place to stop the spread of (COVID-19) are no more than a facade and my health, safety, and life are at risk here.”

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Milton Childs denied the request about a week later, finding “no legal basis” to change Johnson’s sentence due to the pandemic.

“While the court recognizes the potential threat of COVID-19 to the inmate population, it also recognizes that the institution has a legal obligation to take the necessary steps to keep inmates safe and healthy,” Childs wrote.

Johnson’s health declined over the next month, Forsterling told Wisconsin Watch in an email.

“The last thing he said to me was, ‘I can’t take this shit anymore, I can’t breathe,’” Forsterling wrote.

Johnson died at a La Crosse County hospital on Nov. 30. The cause: complications from COVID-19, his autopsy showed.

The Prairie du Chien prison was designed to hold 326 inmates, but about 500 packed its decades-old buildings during Johnson’s final week alive. The facility has reported 413 inmate infections during the pandemic.

More than half of inmates infected

The coronavirus has run rampant across Wisconsin’s state prison system, infecting at least 2,153 staff members at adult institutions who self-reported test results and 10,786 inmates throughout the pandemic — more than half of the current population. The state has detected infections among inmates at a rate more than five times higher than in the general population. The outbreaks have killed at least 25 inmates, according to DOC data. John Beard, an agency spokesman, declined to say whether any prison staff had died of the virus, citing medical privacy considerations.

Advocates fear even more inmates have died. The agency has not updated its COVID-19 death toll since Jan. 7, and county medical examiners say determining a cause of death can sometimes take weeks or months. Beard said he did not know how many inmate death investigations remained pending, but he did tell Wisconsin Watch that at least 74 state inmates died of any cause in 2020 — up from 51 the previous year and 52 in 2018.

The figures illustrate the dangerous consequences of overcrowded prisons — an issue Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, vowed to address before the pandemic struck.

A year after Wisconsin detected its first case of COVID-19 in the general population, however, inmates say crowding — including the continued use of communal bathrooms, day rooms and telephones, along with inconsistent restrictions on gathering and movement — leave them too close to their peers and staff, allowing COVID-19 to freely spread.

Wisconsin Watch interviewed over phone and email more than a dozen inmates at seven facilities for this story. Inmates at five prisons said they witnessed times in which infected inmates were not separated from others. Staff compliance with a DOC masking mandate is uneven, inmates say. And chronic overcrowding remains a major factor driving prison outbreaks in Wisconsin and other states, inmates and experts say.

“The public health experts are unanimous … If you wanted to reduce the number of people in prisons — whether prisoners or staff — who get sick and die of COVID, the most effective thing you could do is cut the numbers (of inmates),” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

Wisconsin has trimmed its prison population by about 3,400 since early March 2020 — now at its lowest point in more than two decades. Revocations — violations of post-release supervision — are trending down, Beard said, meaning fewer people are serving time for that reason. Still, the state’s 19,858 inmates as of Jan. 29 are filling facilities designed to hold only 17,609.

And inmates report that prisoners over 65 have already begun to receive COVID-19 vaccines — amid an ongoing legislative debate about whether all inmates should be prioritized for vaccination.

Inmate advocates say Evers could more quickly alleviate crowding — and slow the virus’ spread — by issuing reprieves or commuting the sentences of medically vulnerable inmates who pose little public safety risk. He has declined to wield those powers despite previously setting a goal to cut the state prison population in half.

In a Dec. 1 media briefing, Evers dismissed suggestions that overcrowding made inmates significantly more vulnerable to COVID-19. More important, he said, was to halt the virus in the population outside prisons and block its pathways in.

“It’s the issue of what’s going on in the community and in the state of Wisconsin — and in our country — that this virus is so prevalent,” he told reporters. “We have to break that cycle. If we had 5% of the prisoners left in an institution, they’d still be getting COVID-19.”

In an email to Wisconsin Watch, Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback touted the recent population dip and DOC efforts to expand the state’s Earned Release Program and reduce prison admissions for technical parole violations.

Evers is opting against more dramatic measures while applauding the Black Lives Matter movement and pushing the GOP-controlled Legislature to address racial disparities in policing and incarceration. Wisconsin as of 2017 incarcerated Black adults at a rate nearly 12 times higher than white adults — the second-highest disparity in the country.

Inmate infection rates have slowed in recent weeks. And vaccines offer additional hope for preventing more sickness and death. But inmates fear additional outbreaks, and families are mourning losses.

“He shouldn’t have had to die like that,” Milwaukee resident Sherita Johnson said of her uncle. “Calvin was on his way home. Calvin wanted to stay well enough to come home, and he never made it.”

Dangerous by design

Prisons nationwide have struggled to contain the coronavirus. Compared to Wisconsin, most states have confirmed more COVID-19 deaths among inmates when adjusted for population. But Wisconsin ranked 10th in infection rates as of Feb. 5, according to tracking by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project. Wisconsin was a laggard in ramping up testing for inmates, meaning its data likely undercounts infections from the early months of the pandemic.

Many of Wisconsin’s aging prisons are poorly designed to keep viruses from spreading. Inmates in some facilities sleep in barrack-like arrangements and cells are cramped. Inmates share toilets, showers and sinks. Prisoners say air typically flows poorly through the facilities — conditions common in prisons nationwide that allow aerosols to remain in the air and circulate throughout the closed environment, according to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report that calls for decarceration to limit COVID-19 in prisons.

“It’s not that this virus is behaving differently in correctional systems,” said Dr. Lisa Puglisi, an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine and expert in post-incarceration care. “It is that the (correctional) systems can’t handle the virus.”

Wisconsin’s DOC has adopted policies in line with many of those recommendations. The state eventually rolled out mass testing, developed quarantine protocols, mandated mask-wearing among staff and issued at least three cloth masks to inmates free of charge — requiring inmates to wear them in common areas.

Beard said prison conditions have improved in recent months, with just 39 systemwide infections considered “active” as of Feb. 8.

“The current state of COVID-19 in our institutions is drastically different than it was in the fall,” Beard wrote in an email. “I believe the work of our institution leadership and staff in stemming the tide of this virus, even if temporarily, should be recognized.”

But Prince Rashada, a 52-year-old inmate at Fox Lake Correctional Institution, was among seven inmates at three prisons who told Wisconsin Watch that soap and sanitizer remained hard to access — or that sanitation was broadly lacking. He was also among eight inmates at five prisons who said infected inmates were not always isolated from others.

“The fact remains that they put our lives at risk,” Rashada, who reports having sickle cell trait and other conditions that might make him more vulnerable to COVID-19, said in a phone interview. “I fear for my life, and I feel I’m going to die in prison. I’m having nightmares that I’m going to die in here.”

With more than 1,200 inmates, the Fox Lake prison is about 25% over capacity. Nearly 900 inmates there have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least two have died.

Rashada said he began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms last April but was refused testing; Fox Lake tested no more than a handful of inmates until mass testing began in June, according to DOC data. Rashada later tested positive for COVID-19 in November and now suffers headaches, kidney trouble, lost appetite and fatigue, according to Faithe Wills, his fiancé.

“I can’t tell you the stress that this brings to my body. I suffer from insomnia,” said Wills, who hears Rashada’s updates from her home in Ontario, Canada. “My wheels just keep turning.”

Transfers pose risk

Wisconsin has struggled for years to fully staff prisons, and the pandemic has worsened that challenge. About 690 full-time positions remained vacant at adult facilities as of Feb. 2, a vacancy rate of about 15%.

Citing understaffing at Waupun Correctional and a need to realign inmates with prisons matching their security level, DOC in December announced it would close a cell block at the 170-year-old maximum-security institution — transferring about 220 inmates to medium security institutions through the end of February. Waupun prison still held 1,007 inmates as of Jan. 29, exceeding capacity by 14%.

“Our adult population is at the lowest point it has been in two decades, which gives us the available space to make these moves,” Carr said in a Dec. 1 statement, even as 23 of Wisconsin’s adult prisons exceeded capacity.

Corrections officials have sought to reduce the risk that inmate transfers will fuel outbreaks. That includes suspending movement this fall between DOC institutions experiencing outbreaks, Beard said. The agency says inmates are tested and quarantined for 14 days before moving between DOC institutions — or before arriving from a county jail. The policy calls for another 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

But inmate Matthew Schumacher told Wisconsin Watch that he went untested in December before moving from Columbia Correctional to Oshkosh Correctional, where he says he was immediately placed in barracks-style housing and wasn’t tested for two weeks. That test came back negative, and Schumacher says he has not felt COVID-19 symptoms.

More than 1,800 inmates pack the Oshkosh prison, exceeding its capacity by 23%. The coronavirus has infected at least 1,030 Oshkosh inmates — nearly all of them before Schumacher’s transfer — and killed at least four, according to DOC data.

“We are packed in here pretty good and everyone here has pretty much had covid. Ones that have been here during the outbreaks, or guys that caught it at (Dodge Correctional Institution) and are now here,” Schumacher wrote. “I’m surprised they never shut this unit down or severely decreased the numbers.”

Three inmates at Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution (35% over capacity) told the Wisconsin State Journal that they were not separated from infected cellmates during a September outbreak — details that three unnamed staffers confirmed. Those inmates also later tested positive, the newspaper reported. The prison in Sheboygan County has reported one death and nearly 900 COVID-19 infections throughout the pandemic, most of them during the fall.

Advocates seek Evers action

In a 2018 Democratic gubernatorial debate, Evers was asked whether he supported a proposal by activists to cut the state’s prison population in half. “Absolutely — and that’s a goal worth accomplishing,” he replied.

He did not set a deadline to reach that goal but spoke of “second chances” and “redemption” in a 2019 Wisconsin Watch interview. There, he said he backed increasing paroles and helping inmates line up jobs, housing and transportation to more smoothly return to society. Evers’ office also pointed to his reinstitution of pardons — 144 so far — but that has not affected prison populations as all have served their sentences.

Several factors are driving DOC’s recent population dip, including the agency’s limits on taking inmates from county jails during the pandemic. Additionally, a preexisting Earned Release Program allowed more than 2,100 nonviolent offenders over the past year to pursue substance abuse treatment in lieu of prison; DOC is considering expanding that program.

DOC released at least 16 additional inmates over the past year through a program for aging inmates with extraordinary health conditions — a sliver of Wisconsin’s roughly 1,600 inmates who are 60 years or older.

“We have very limited mechanisms for releasing individuals before their release date and those who apply must meet the criteria,” Beard said in an email.

Inmates’ rights advocates want more action from Evers.

The ACLU petitioned the state Supreme Court in April to order Wisconsin to curb crowding by releasing elderly and medically vulnerable inmates. Evers’ administration opposed the lawsuit, which the court dismissed.

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