COVID-19: A ‘tinderbox’ in Wisconsin and Minnesota prisons 

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The Democratic governors of both Wisconsin and Minnesota have continued stay-at-home orders. Tragically, however, both governors indicate that social distancing does not pertain to prisoners. Both governors have created hazards in correctional facilities that could be considered criminal.

The Moose Lake Correctional Facility in Minnesota, and its 836 inmates, could become the “epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota correctional facilities,” says Dr. Susan Hasti of Hennepin Health Care. In a major outbreak, there would not be enough hospital beds in the area to cover even half of the suspected cases. Minnesota prides itself on the many health-care facilities from Duluth to Mayo Clinic. But the lack of equipment, room, and personal protections would create dire problems in the state health-care system if a COVID-19 outbreak happens.

The rapid spread of the highly contagious disease within prison walls could quickly move to outside communities. Prisons are not immutable ecosystems that can be locked down to avoid infection by the virus.

The prison eco-system already has been compromised by prison workers and doctors who have infected inmates. The movements of inmates, social workers, and prison workers and guards ensure that the spread of COVID would be like a “tinderbox,” according to Dr. Lynne Ogawa, medical director of the St. Paul-Ramsey County Department of Public Health.

So far this month, 13 Moose Lake inmates have tested positive, with another 31 presumed to have the virus. A minimum-security facility at Willow River, had three confirmed cases and six presumed. Those are the only prisons in the state where the virus has been confirmed; the Department of Corrections said that only two cases so far have required hospitalization.

A petition for release was filed by three Moose Lake inmates on behalf of themselves and others who meet certain criteria. It includes the demand that many inmates who are not a threat to the community or have six months left should be released or isolated in transitional living placements.

A “death sentence” in Wisconsin prisons 

Democratic Governor Evers is certainly not a “lesser evil” when it comes to evacuation and social distancing orders in the vast gulag archipelago of Wisconsin prisons.

In Wisconsin, there is some activism around evacuation of the prisons. Organizing attempts from Save the Kids, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Forum for Understanding Prisons (FFUP), and other groups continue to employ phone zaps to Department of Corrections heads and local authorities. Forum for Understanding Prisons held caravans and plot signs in front of the DOC chief’s headquarters.

In a recent webinar, participants of the FFUP said that if COVID gets into Wisconsin prisons, it will be a death sentence. One incarcerated person’s mother stated that gloves are not being changed, and inadequate social distancing is not being used. New inmates are being admitted as well.

As of today, FFUP says the DOC has done only one test for COVID-19 although it has tested for influenza. Other actions include a webinar on May 17 on a panel on Youth Detention by Save the Kids, with some members of Socialist Resurgence participating. As stated in a recent Socialist Resurgence article, “Prisons are deathtraps for COVID-19”: Evacuate them now!

Photo: Rex Winsome 




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