Staffing shortages in Wis. prison system prompt transfer of inmates

The population reduction will allow the number of direct staffed posts to be decreased by eight per day


By Emily Hamer
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — Amid staffing shortages and coronavirus outbreaks, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections is closing a section of Waupun prison and moving 220 inmates who live there to other facilities, DOC announced Tuesday.

The move is expected to help address staff vacancies at Waupun Correctional Institution and decrease the prison's population by 20% over the next few months as prisoners are transferred.

"We've taken many steps to try and address vacancy rates at Waupun," Division of Adult Institutions administrator Makda Fessahaye said in a statement. "We think closing the cell hall will help address staffing while meeting the alignment goals of our agency."

DOC spokesperson John Beard said DOC has not yet decided which housing unit, also known as a cell hall, will be closed. The cell halls at Waupun are stand-alone buildings with groups of cells.

DOC on Tuesday reported that no inmates at Waupun had active cases of COVID-19. Any outbreaks could cause delays in the transfers.

The population reduction will allow the number of direct staffed posts to be decreased by eight per day and eliminate "daily relief positions" for the housing unit, DOC said. Beard said the decision to close the cell hall was not related to the pandemic.

DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said in a statement that staffing shortages at Waupun are "not tied to any one, particular factor and did not happen overnight," so the closure won't fix all the issues.

"We think it is a step in the right direction," Carr said.

While the state prison system has historically struggled with staffing vacancies, the problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Tuesday, 190 DOC employees were actively infected with COVID-19 and unable to work in the institutions, according to DOC data.

Waupun had 133 full-time vacancies in early November — the highest number of vacancies of any state prison, according to DOC data. That's 30.4% of the total positions in the prison that remain unfilled.

Across all adult prisons, there were 1,075 full-time staff vacancies, or 14.1% of all full-time positions unfilled.

FOX 6 News Milwaukee reported that COVID-19-exposed guards are having to fill in the staffing gaps in prisons.

Since the start of the pandemic, 119 Waupun staff have self-reported testing positive for COVID-19, but most of them have since recovered, according to DOC.

DOC spokesperson John Beard said only four employees from Waupun were out with COVID-19 on Monday.

Carr said a major reason for closing one of the housing buildings is to "better align our institution populations."

Waupun is a maximum-security prison, but most of those being transferred are classified as medium-security prisoners. They'll be transferred to medium-security prisons. DOC said there will also be corresponding transfers of minimum-security prisoners.

"We want more individuals classified as medium security living in medium-security institutions and more individuals classified as minimum security moved into minimum-security institutions," Carr said.

Carr said the move is possible because the adult prison population is at its lowest point in two two decades.

As of Friday, the total inmate population across DOC's more than 30 adult facilities was 20,514. In early March, the population was more than 23,000.

Waupun is currently operating at 128.2% of its designed capacity. It's unclear whether the new move will alleviate overcrowding since prisoners will not have more space. Beard said the design capacity remains the same because the cell hall will still be there for potential future use.

The shuffling around of inmates comes as the state prison system is facing 1,107 active COVID-19 cases among inmates, as of Tuesday.

While Waupun does not currently have active cases, it has had 716 COVID-19 infections among inmates since the start of the pandemic. And several prisons that inmates could be transferred to, or that minimum-security inmates could be transferred from, do have active outbreaks.

Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison, had 377 active cases among inmates Tuesday.

Beard said the first groups transferred will be those who have recently recovered from COVID-19 and are not required to quarantine.

For those who have not already been infected, DOC's policy is to quarantine inmates for 14 days before they leave an institution and again for another 14 days before they're introduced into the general population at a new prison.

Beard said it's possible that an inmate may be transferred to a prison with an active outbreak, but noted that even a prison with two cases is considered to have an outbreak, according to Department of Health Services guidelines. That's why transfers are quarantined, he added.

Some prisons with larger outbreaks have suspended or postponed transfers, Beard said.

Transfers of the 220 Waupun inmates has already begun and are expected to continue through February, DOC said.

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(c)2020 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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