COVID-19 among Wisconsin inmates reaches all-time high; New Lisbon Correctional tops outbreak list

COVID-19 cases among Wisconsin’s more than 20,000 prisoners have more than quadrupled in the past two weeks from outbreaks earlier in the summer. Now topping 1,700 cases two weeks in a row (with a brief all-time high last Thursday of more than 2,000 active cases), eleven facilities operated by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections have more than 50 active COVID-19 cases each and almost a third of all inmates in the system are in quarantine. Ten inmates have died, according to data recently released by the DOC after pressure from the ACLU and other media outlets.

New Lisbon Correctional Institution in central Wisconsin currently has the largest outbreak in the state, with about 30% of its inmate population currently sick with the coronavirus.

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DOC Secretary Kevin A. Carr issued a letter Nov. 2, acknowledging the spike in cases that began near the beginning of October. “Our agency has seen a recent, significant spike in COVID-19 positive cases at a number of our institutions,” Carr wrote, “And I’m sure it has taken an emotional toll on our staff, those in our care and their loved ones.”

New Lisbon Correctional Institution in central Wisconsin tops the list of active COVID-19 outbreaks in DOC facilities, closely followed by Redgranite Correctional Institution and Waupun Correctional Institution. (To date, Kettle Moraine has had the highest total of cumulative COVID-19 cases among inmates.) On Nov. 6 only five facilities–all with roughly a hundred in population or fewer, with the exception of the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility*–had not had a COVID-19 case.

At New Lisbon, DOC spokesperson John Beard says their current active case load largely came after outbreak testing last week; the Wisconsin National Guard tested inmates on Nov. 2, 3 and 4; with the bulk of current positive case results returning on Nov. 5.

“I think we can all agree and understand that once you get a case or two in [a prison], it’s more difficult to keep it from spreading,” Beard noted. He said that current protocols for staff and any outside deliveries or contractors coming in included screening and mandated masks, as well as other precautions. “We can do what we can control,” he said.

Starting at the beginning of November, the DOC is limiting the number of intakes from county jails. Earlier in the spring, the DOC briefly suspended intakes from county jails under an order from Gov. Tony Evers that later expired. CARES Act funding is being used to pay daily rates for inmates in county jails that would otherwise have already been transferred to a state facility, Beard said. Internal transfers to institutions with outbreaks, like New Lisbon and others, have also been postponed as of October.

New Lisbon Correctional is a medium-security institution, housing just over 1,000 inmates according to the latest DOC weekly population report. Last Thursday, 20 staff members were positive for COVID-19 according to Beard; about 300 DOC employees staff the facility. In total, 61 staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus. Currently, the facility has been able to maintain staffing levels without bringing extra staff in from outside the facility, but Beard noted that overtime loads have increased.


Do you work in a Department of Corrections facility or have a loved one who is an inmate, and have information you think we should know? Investigative Reporter Naomi Kowles can be reached at nkowles@wisctv.com

*Correction: This article originally stated that all five facilities with zero cases have a population of about 100 or less. The article has been updated to reflect that the exception to this is the Wisconsin Secure Detention Program, with a population of 456. As of 11/10/2020, they have not had any COVID-19 cases.