‘I was not sentenced to death’: As COVID-19 surges through Wisconsin prisons, New Lisbon inmates call for safer procedures

MADISON, Wis. — It’s a chilly afternoon in mid-November outside the governor’s mansion in Madison, but Eugene Crisler’s young daughter isn’t deterred. Her older sister rests in the car, but she remains with her father as he fulfills a two-hour shift in an ongoing “sit-in” outside the residence.

Crisler is advocating for the release of Wisconsin’s prisoners amid a pandemic still ravaging the state and its prison facilities, infecting thousands and taking the lives so far of 11 prisoners. 

“You don’t want to get sick inside an institution,” Crisler said. “The only way you get help, and if it’s really truly a medical situation, you have to be dying.”

He was an inmate at New Lisbon Correctional Facility from February until recently, released in September right after virus cases had climbed from zero to dozens inside the facility. Since then, cases spiraled inside until they briefly topped the list of largest COVID-19 outbreaks across DOC facilities in Wisconsin in November. 

Crisler said he was being contacted by many inmates still in the facility, most in quarantine, as well as family members concerned about loved ones. He was worried about others at high risk that he wasn’t hearing from at all.

Cases now–for the moment–have subsided there, leaving them in fourth place overall with just over 500 cumulative cases since the start of the pandemic. However, as cases overall climb past 8,000 in the Department of Corrections system, inmates at New Lisbon and other facilities who spoke to News 3 Investigates are concerned.

From communities to correctional facilities

Wisconsin’s adult prison population numbers just over 20,000, with more than 8,000 testing positive for COVID-19–many in just the last several weeks as cases quadrupled from rates through the summer. In comparison, Minnesota’s incarcerated population of just over 7,300, where four inmates have died and 2,950 have tested positive for the coronavirus. On the other side of Wisconsin in Michigan, however, the virus has claimed the lives of 77 inmates out of an incarcerated population of about 34,000.

In Wisconsin, the recent rise in cases among prisoners mirrors the spike of COVID-19 across the state as it catapulted to the top of the national list of worst outbreaks by some measurements.

“We are not isolated from the larger community,” said Makda Fessahaye, administrator of the DOC’s Division of Adult Institutions. “Our employees do not live in a vacuum. They and their families live in communities across the state where COVID-19 has been spreading extremely rapidly.”

Inside the prisons 

More than a dozen inmates and advocates in conversations with News 3 Investigates have painted a grimmer picture, however, where safety policies like mask-wearing and social distancing have been reluctantly practiced and poorly followed. Many inmates from New Lisbon and other correctional facilities echo a fear for their lives, neglect of basic health needs and care, and policies they say are implemented sloppily at best.

“I’m scared for my life,” New Lisbon inmate Andrew Moore wrote, giving News 3 Investigates permission to use his name. “We are all around each other, no social distancing, we are still mingling with the positive people.”

“I was sentenced to do time, I was not sentenced to death.”

“It’s a really anxiety ridden environment where a lot of people with underlying health conditions are literally scared for their lives and the Department of Corrections is not doing their best to protect the people in their care,” another inmate noted. “There is an overall air of people not taking the virus seriously.”

Isolation and quarantine

Inmates at New Lisbon repeatedly voiced frustration about poor social distancing within the facility and exposure to others who were sick.

One inmate said individuals who hadn’t been infected were kept in cells with others testing positive for the virus, and that others in isolation were still entering general areas for food and phone time with others in the population.

Meal times were a common complaint among inmates both at New Lisbon and elsewhere in the system, saying groups of up to a hundred prisoners at a time came together without social distancing to get their meals before returning to their cells. 

“There is no way to practice social distancing, because we stand shoulder to shoulder to go through a line to get our food,” another inmate noted. “This place is like an incubator, so even if we quarantine in our cells whatever I cough or sneeze goes to the next room.”

Isolation of people presenting symptoms or testing positive has been DOC policy throughout the pandemic, Fessahaye said. Current DOC safety policies for COVID-19 include distinct procedures for people sick with a contagious disease and people who have been potentially or directly exposed to a contagious disease: the first are isolated from others, while the second are quarantined–which “separates and restricts the movement” of those who have been exposed.

But delays in test results could be at the root of some of the inmates’ complaints about mingling with inmates testing positive, according to Fessahaye. Mass testing occurs frequently, and many who have tested positive in DOC facilities throughout the year have been asymptomatic. 

An inmate presenting COVID-19 symptoms always results in isolation under their safety protocols, she said, whether the inmate has tested positive for the virus or not. Additionally, any inmate who tests positive is also put in isolation. But others who have the virus without symptoms won’t be discovered until test results return, and in a facility like a prison which is designed to house large groups of people–it becomes nearly impossible not to infect others in that scenario. That’s led to the quarantine or isolation of large groups of people together, not just individuals.

“When we test a unit on Monday, we may have individuals who have now been exposed to people who are positive without symptoms but pending test results,” Fessahaye said. “By the time you get results, those individuals have been exposed.”

Mask policies

A mask policy for both staff and inmates was implemented at DOC facilities in June, before Gov. Tony Evers made face coverings a statewide mandate. Fessahaye says there’s been few violations of that policy; inmates tell a different story–for both themselves and staff.

“Things really did not change that much because so many people had different feelings about what should be done,” Crisler recalled from the first few months of the policy. Some correctional officers wore them, some didn’t, he said; the same story applied to the incarcerated population.

That air of indifference still reaches to both staff members and inmates currently, according to multiple inmates inside the New Lisbon facility.

“Most people on my unit wear their masks so it’s around their chin with their mouth and nose exposed.  Other people don’t bother wearing a mask at all,” one inmate wrote. 

“We have been having a lot of officers that don’t wear their required face mask,” wrote another inmate. “They’ll pull it up when a supervisor come [sic] around, or if the unit manager is walking around on the unit.”

A failure to wear masks is a serious staff violation, Fessahaye said, that is dealt with on an individual basis and subject to disciplinary procedures. At New Lisbon and other facilities around the state, recorded violations and subsequent discipline have been few and far between.

“We have the expectation that everyone wears their mask according to the statewide mandate and our own policy as well,” she explained. “’If we find that an individual staff member is not wearing their mask according to our directives, they will be held accountable.”

Ultimately, the ongoing sit-ins in front of the Governor’s Mansion continue because Crisler and other advocates like him believe the state is failing its prisoners.

“These individuals were sentenced to time, not death,” Sean Wilson with ACLU Wisconsin said. “This is a human rights issue.”

For Crisler, it’s personal. “People don’t get treated like human beings in there. They got lost and forgotten.”


Note: Six current New Lisbon inmates in addition to recently released inmate Eugen Crisler spoke with News 3 Investigates for this story, as well as several inmates at facilities elsewhere in the state. Those who agreed to use their names had their quotes attributed; others were given anonymity based on fear of repercussion.