As outbreaks in prisons grow, Wisconsin DOC continues to withhold COVID-19 death totals

MADISON, Wis. — Citing HIPAA laws, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections leaves it up to medical examiners and coroners to disclose inmate deaths of those who have tested positive for COVID-19. That practice differs from neighboring states like Minnesota and Michigan, which both disclose total COVID-19 inmate deaths on their websites. As cases rise in Wisconsin prisons and at least three inmates die after testing positive, the DOC continues to cite HIPAA as a reason not to disclose information about COVID-19 related deaths.

“It’s a ridiculous excuse. It’s not an excuse; It’s a cover-up,” executive director Gretchen Schuldt of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative said. “Under DOC standards, we would never know how many people died on a highway each year.”

1,048 prisoners are in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 and another 1,976 in quarantine after being exposed, the latest statistics on the DOC’s website show. But no information is provided about COVID-19 deaths, even after two inmates were reported to have died last month and another with comorbidities but who was being treated for COVID-19 died at UW Hospital on Oct. 7.

“Confidentiality laws and privacy protections prevent Wisconsin DOC from sharing information related to medical diagnoses of those in our care. This is the case for COVID-19 or any other instance of death of a person in our care,” a statement from the DOC’s spokesperson John Beard noted.

But HIPAA hasn’t stopped the DOCs of Michigan and Minnesota from publicly reporting COVID-19 deaths among inmates.

“The MN DOC reports the number of COVID deaths in our incarcerated population, but not the names of those who have died,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “The fact that the MN DOC is reporting the number of deaths and not the names of those who have died is consistent with data privacy laws.”

Michigan sent a similar response, saying simply that reporting numbers of COVID-19 deaths was not equivalent to violating the privacy of individuals. In Wisconsin, the DOC defers to individual medical examiners and coroners–which doesn’t provide a complete picture. Medical examiners from Dane, Juneau and Columbia counties provided information about deaths (or the lack thereof, at New Lisbon and Columbia) to News 3 Now. But to the Wisconsin State Journal, Winnebago County’s medical examiner didn’t comment on any deaths at the facility in Oshkosh, where another massive outbreak is underway. A national review of states’ responses to COVID-19 in their prison systems by the ACLU left Wisconsin with an F+ grade in June (no state received higher than a D).

The absence leaves an information gap for families, Schuldt says.

“The public has a right to know whether DOC is protecting those people or not,” she said. “And certainly the families and loved ones of people incarcerated have the right to know.”

Currently, Kettle Moraine Correctional leads the DOC facilities in COVID-19 cases at 446 active cases on Oct. 8, according to the latest data reported on their website. Oshkosh comes next with 347 active cases; Dodge and Columbia have 57 and 75, respectively.

In September, two inmates died after testing positive for COVID-19 amid an outbreak at Dodge Correctional Institution–reports that didn’t surface until Oct. 8. Both had pre-existing conditions, but COVID-19 was either the primary cause or a contributing factor to death.

Meanwhile, Schuldt says she’s heard from inmates who are scared or receiving mixed messages about the virus. “It’s time for the Governor and DOC to take some stronger measures to protect people within Wisconsin’s state prisons,” she noted. (The governor’s office had not yet replied to a request for comment at the time of publishing.)

According to a message from DOC Secretary Kevin A. Carr in April, the DOC implemented measures like releasing supervision for a little more than 1,000 non-violent misdemeanants, and released people in custody that qualified for “Certain Earned Release” to supervision. It noted that safety precautions had been established, including isolating those who tested positive and quarantining those who had been exposed. According to the most recent population report, the DOC currently has just over 21,000 inmates in adult institutions.