Dane County Jail COVID-19 outbreak nearly doubles over weekend as inmates say they feel unsafe

MADISON, Wis. — Several inmates housed in the city county building of the Dane County Jail are frustrated with what they see as insufficient testing and poor access to hygiene and cleaning supplies.

After active cases stayed low at the jail in the past few months, incoming inmates testing positive resulted in an ongoing outbreak last week in two different units that over the weekend nearly doubled in size. As of mid-afternoon Monday, 69 inmates were positive for COVID-19 with many still awaiting test results, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney said.

Inmate Arwin Lacy, one of several who participated in a recorded video call with News 3 Now on Friday evening, says he has had diagnosed bronchitis and severe asthma. Arwin said the jail has put him and other inmates at risk by moving inmates into their unit without prior testing.

“They moved an inmate … to our quarantine block without getting covid-19 tests done, putting inmates at risk,” he said. Lacy believes that’s what started the second outbreak of 22 cases later last week outside of the initial quarantine unit. Current jail policies stipulate that incoming inmates–the cause of the current outbreak–get tested and quarantine in an initial housing unit before entering the general jail population. Everyone in the unit quarantines when an inmate tests positive, Mahoney said, and no one leaves the unit without a test. Sometimes, inmates refuse testing, which results in isolation; solitary housing isn’t realistic across the board due to the available space in the facilities, Mahoney noted.

“They get tested when they first come in, they get tested on the 7th day, then on the 14th day,” Mahone noted.

After an initial outbreak earlier in the spring at the jail, the facility had managed to keep active case counts in the low single digits for much of the late summer and early fall. In mid-summer, they introduced a decontamination system that Mahoney says is still regularly operating. But cases rose quickly last week and spread outside the initial quarantine unit, with 38 testing positive by last Thursday after cases started rising earlier in the week.

“It’s bad in here,” another inmate said Friday. Over the next three days, cases would nearly double. At least two inmates said they were submitting grievances about what they saw as failed testing procedures and an inability to get proper protective equipment; those grievances, they claimed, had been ignored. Mahoney

Several inmates who spoke directly with News 3 Now in a Friday video call cited diagnosed health conditions like asthma and heart conditions that would put them at higher risk. So far, Mahoney said none of the inmates need hospitalization or are experiencing severe symptoms. Everyone who tests positive, he said, gets a twice-daily medical check; the facility has its own medical unit to service inmates.

“If they keep going at the rate that they’re going, everybody’s gonna catch corona,” Lacy’s girlfriend Hope Barajas said. “They’re denying them for cleaning supplies, they’re denying them for seeing the doctor, they’re denying them for putting in grievances and complaints.”

Mahoney pushed back on allegations about lacking cleaning supplies, saying there had been no shortage of items like masks and disinfectants and that inmates were provided with sanitization materials daily.

“We expect the inmate population to do their cleaning,” he said. “Masks are made available and we request all inmates that are incarcerated wear masks.”

Near the beginning of the pandemic, the Dane County Criminal Justice Council implemented measures designed to lower the jail population in an effort to reduce infectious disease spread among the county’s jail population. That resulted in a major reduction in the number of inmates; on Monday, the under-roof population was 511. (In 2019 at one point, the population was more than 800.) Mahoney told News 3 Now last week that the jail will soon introduce rapid Covid-19 testing, taking the facility’s precautions a step further.