Across the world, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic increases with each passing day. The highly contagious respiratory illness has been deadly for many, especially the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, and people who are excluded from access to quality healthcare, including Black and brown peoples. and people experiencing poverty. In Wisconsin, Black people are 6.5 times more likely than white people do die from COVID-19. Across the United States, elected and appointed public officials are taking unprecedented steps to protect the most vulnerable people in their communities and contain the spread of the virus.
People incarcerated in jail are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and their protection warrants special emergency action. Jails are known to quickly spread contagious diseases. Incarcerated people have an inherently limited ability to fight the spread of infectious disease since they are confined in close quarters and unable to avoid contact with people who may have been exposed. Responses such as lock downs, placing people in solitary confinement andand ineffective responses to outbreaks. Importantly, we know that solitary confinement further endangers people, is considered a form of psychological torture and has been banned by the UN.
The only acceptable response to the threat of COVID-19 is to release people from jail. Today there are more than 425 people incarcerated in the Dane County Jail. Black people are about 55% of all people incarcerated in the jail, despite being only about 5% of people residing in Dane County. Their ongoing incarceration is an unacceptable risk to every incarcerated person as well as public health.
Jails have extremely high turnover rates. Many people are released and admitted every day, and dozens of employees travel in and out of the Dane County Jail each week. It is not a matter of if coronavirus and COVID-19 will cause deaths in the Dane County Jail and the surrounding community, but when. Probably it already has, as there have already been 22 deaths from it in Dane County so far and there has not been sufficient contact tracing to determine where the virus originated. 21 incarcerated people and and 6 deputies who work at the jail have tested positive as of April 21 and the current number is sure to be higher since the National Guard tested incarcerated people on April 25th. 212 people have died in prisons across the country so far, and 16,865 incarcerated people in prisons as well as 5,240 corrections staff have tested positive. People incarcerated in jails have also been dying: Six incarcerated people in Cook County Jail (Chicago) and one staff member have died; at Rikers Island (New York City), eight corrections employees and at least two incarcerated people have died; two people in Riverside County Jail (California) and one person in Bexar County Jail (San Antonio, Texas) have also died. According to the ACLU, 100,000 additional people will die if elected and appointed public officials don’t release people from jails and prisons immediately.
We demand that elected and appointed public officials take the following steps to protect the health of all Dane County residents, including people incarcerated in the Dane County Jail:
- Dane County judges should immediately release anyone incarcerated in the Dane County Jail only because of unaffordable money bail. If a judge has ordered a person incarcerated due to money bail, it means the judge has determined the person is cleared for release pretrial. Their ongoing incarceration due solely to an inability to pay money bail is deeply unfair and unethical, if not outright illegal and unconstitutional, especially during this pandemic.
- Police and law enforcement agencies should stop arresting people, and the Sheriff’s Office should stop admitting people to the Dane County Jail. The goal should be preventing admission to the jail of as many people as possible.
- Dane County elected officials, including the District Attorney, the Sheriff, and judges, should immediately use their powers to release people over the age of 50, people with compromised immune systems, and Black people from the Dane County Jail. Research has shown that these people are at the highest risk for contracting and experiencing the most serious effects of COVID-19. As stated earlier, Black people in Wisconsin are 6.5 times more likely than white people to die from COVID.
- If courts remain open, judges should waive appearance at non-essential criminal court dates to avoid unnecessary travel and social contact. All in-person pretrial check-ins or other mandated appearances (such as drug testing) should also be waived.
- Cancellation of court dates should not delay anyone’s release from the Dane County Jail. Given that 70% of people released from the Dane County Jail return directly to the community, any failure to resolve court cases at the same pace will increase the number of people in jail and thus the threat to their individual health and public health.
- Stop “turnarounds,” the process by which someone sentenced to time served travels from the Dane County Jail to a Wisconsin Department of Corrections facility to dress in and dress out on the same day. People sentenced to time served should be released directly from the Dane County Jail.
- The Dane County Board of Supervisors, and the Sheriff’s Office must ensure generous funding and unfettered access to Hhealth care access for anyone remaining incarcerated in the Dane County Jail must be liberally provided and unfettered. Anyone remaining in the jail who has tested positive for COVID-19 must be transferred to a hospital for immediate treatment.
- The Sheriff’s Office must expand access to phone calls and video “visitation” for all incarcerated people immediately. This access should be provided free of charge.
- The right to vote must be protected for anyone who remains incarcerated.
- The Sheriff’s Office and the Dane County Board of Supervisors must provide access and funding for personal hygiene, cleaning, and sanitation supplies free of charge to anyone that remains incarcerated. The Sheriff’s oOffice and County Board must also provide people in the jail with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and ensure that the jail’s its staff are consistently using PPE. Hand sanitizer and other essential preventative products must be permitted inside the jail, available for free to all incarcerated people, and should not be considered “contraband.”