We live our lives by a couple of fundamental concepts. One fundamental concept is make the punishment fit the crime. In Wisconsin, we have not endorsed government sanctioned killing by barring the death penalty. Simply put, in Wisconsin a majority believe you cannot turn a bad act, like killing someone, into a good act by killing again. After all, if Justice Brandies was right in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 485 (1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting). that “our government is the potent, the omnipresent, teacher,” when the government teaches that a life does not have intrinsic value it approves of killing. Your government gets to decide some lives just don’t matter so a person needs to be killed. Of course, history has taught us, whether it be Stalin or Hitler, the actual practice of a government’s decision to kill certain people ends up being used against the politically powerless.
With that in mind, we need to realize that as of February 2021, COVID-19 infects half of Wisconsin inmates, five times the overall state rate. Vanessa Swales, ‘He shouldn’t have had to die’: COVID-19 infects half of Wisconsin inmates, five times the overall state rate, Wisconsin Watch (February 13, 2021), https://wisconsinwatch.org/2021/02/covid-19-infects-wisconsin-inmates/?mc_cid=5ec3227325&mc_eid=4a5b451b1f Ms. Swales mentions Calvin Johnson, a 52-year-old who lived with high blood pressure and asthma and feared a COVID-19 outbreak at overcrowded Prairie du Chien Correctional Facility would kill him. He had been convicted of armed robbery in 2016, an offense which Wisconsin says is not supposed to have a death penalty.
In October 2020, he asked a judge to modify his 13-year sentence due to the pandemic for health reasons. Johnson explained to a court that “I was given 13 years for my crime. I was not given a death sentence . . . . 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.”
About a week later, finding “no legal basis” to change Johnson’s sentence due to the pandemic, a judge wrote, “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.” https://wisconsinwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Childs-order.pdf
Johnson died of COVID-19 the next month. The last thing he said was, ‘I can’t take this shit anymore, I can’t breathe.’ ” The cause: complications from COVID-19, his autopsy showed.
Reporter Vanessa Swales explains that:
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.
Ms. Swales continues:
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.”
In other words, an overcrowded prison is an overcrowded prison and until you take steps to deal with overcrowding, bandaid solutions do not help.
For instance 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.”
It is time for Wisconsin to make the punishment fit the crime. Wisconsin needs to stop killing people by prison overcrowding.