But what does not make sense is Wisconsin refusing to address the places where the disease is most easily spread among large groups of people. Jails and prisons. The deadly problem is getting worse in prisons. The number of prisoners who have tested positive for the virus grew by more than 50 percent in the past week. The first COVID-19-related death in a prison came on March 26. Since then over 215 prisoners have died from complications of the virus. In Wisconsin, there have been at least 18 cases of coronavirus reported among prisoners in Wisconsin.
While we know considerably more about how many prisoners are getting sick, another group of people is at risk in these facilities: correctional officers and other workers. We know even less about how the virus is affecting them, though they have the potential to carry the virus both into facilities and back into their communities. It’s difficult to assess how prison workers are being affected because many aren’t being systematically tested.
Nevertheless, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected (interestingly enough by remote appearance) the lawsuit to release inmates to prevent spread of COVID-19. This despite in other states inmates have been temporarily released to avert the spread of the disease. The lawsuit explained that the first confirmed COVID-19 cases have appeared in the State’s overcrowded prisons - eleven department of corrections staff and four prisoners have been diagnosed with the disease.1 At least nine inmates and five staff have the disease at Wisconsin county jails. This is a warning sign that immediate, drastic action is needed. In a declaration accompanying the lawsuit, Dr. Amanda M. Simanek and Dr. Lorraine Halinka Malcoe, both professors of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee stated: “as epidemiologists and public health professionals, we urge actions to safely and rapidly reduce Wisconsin’s prison populations in order to minimize the risk of severe outbreaks of COVID-19 – and especially hospitalizations and deaths – among incarcerated persons as well as correctional staff. The time for action is now.”
Interestingly enough, at least 1,324 confirmed coronavirus cases are tied to prisons and jails across the United States, according to data tracked by The New York Times, including at least 32 deaths. “The jail in Chicago is now the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections, according to data compiled by The New York Times, with more confirmed cases than the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., or the cluster centered on New Rochelle, N.Y.”
A model of the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons from the nonprofit Recidiviz suggests that hospitals will soon be overwhelmed by a deluge of sick prisoners—further burdening already overwhelmed healthcare systems, and preventing sick people on the outside from accessing care when they desperately need it. Looking at current counts of people in jails and prisons alongside this model, it seems that more than one-third of the public hospital beds in the nation could be in use by prisoners in less than three weeks.
Simply put, releasing prisoners now means less prisoners taking hospital space so more free people will be able to get into the hospital when needed