By David Carlson, Smart Justice Campaign Regional Organizer
In California, we have fought your wildfires since World War II. In Texas, we were paid $2 an hour to move the bodies of diseased COVID-19 victims. In Wisconsin, we get paid $1 an hour to make your signage, furniture for your offices, grow crops, refurbish medical equipment, work in warehouses, and do laundry for state agencies and university campuses. We make only cents per hour providing the manpower necessary to run the 37 correctional institutions in Wisconsin. We are treated as your third-class citizenry. You refer to us as your inmates—your convicts.
Despite our contributions nationwide, hesitant lawmakers lack the commitment to legislate in favor of saving lives, while intransigent corrections officials continue to promote their rhetoric of “paying your debt to society” and public safety — a shield they hide behind to prevent the public from seeing that they do not serve the best interests of our communities. In Wisconsin, Governor Tony Evers has neglected to use his executive authority on behalf of the nearly 21,000 incarcerated citizens, many of whom are from marginalized populations such as Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color along with LGBTQIA+ individuals, who at this moment are facing the out of control spread of COVID-19 within correctional facilities statewide.
According to the updated Wisconsin Department of Corrections COVID-19 Dashboard, there have been 8,226 positive COVID-19 tests in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ prisoner population and there have been 11 COVID-19 deaths. Inaction will result in the loss of additional lives entrusted to the care of the Wisconsin state government. Lives of people who made mistakes and were sentenced to a term of incarceration — not a death sentence. We must also account for the thousands of people sitting in county jails who have not yet been convicted, but who remain behind bars because they cannot afford cash bail. These individuals are risking exposure to a deadly virus with no ability to protect themselves.
On April 10 of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit in the Wisconsin Supreme Court on behalf of two Wisconsin Department of Corrections prisoners with pre-existing conditions, asking the court to order Governor Evers and state correctional officials to reduce the DOC’s population to a number where social distancing would remain possible throughout this pandemic. Currently, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections houses nearly 21,000 prisoners in a correctional system built to accommodate only 17,815 individuals. It is now seven months later, and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has reported 338,472 positive cases of COVID-19 in the Wisconsin public, with 2,876 deaths. Every day this issue is left to the devices of Wisconsin Department of Corrections officials is another day that we lose in the fight to save lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the priorities of so many politicians, lawmakers, and citizens of Wisconsin — now that adversity has reached their doorsteps, they have retreated into hiding, exposing their self-centered motivations and lack of leadership capacity. While they hide, Wisconsinites die. The prison population in Wisconsin comprises nearly 40% of African Americans, despite Wisconsin having an African American population of less than 7%. Those who have claimed to support the eradication of systemic racism must voice their demands for Governor Evers, the Wisconsin Legislature, and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to act before it is too late. Silence is complicity during this period of tragedy and suffering.
Begin your fight to prevent the impending human rights catastrophe that will result if action is not taken, by signing this petition demanding Governor Evers use his executive powers to release incarcerated people who are not a danger to the public. Click on this link to sign the petition: https://action.aclu.org/send-message/wi-prison-pandemic. If you are interested in getting further involved in combating the disparate outcomes for People of Color in our Wisconsin system of criminal justice, go to https://www.aclu-wi.org/ or the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Campaign for Smart Justice Facebook page to see how you can contribute.