Wisconsin prison system suspends in-person visits as Omicron infections rise

MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Department of Corrections announced Thursday that in-person visits would be temporarily suspended in state prisons due to rising COVID-19 cases and the Omicron variant.

The DOC will reevaluate the decision in early February, and video visits would be offered instead. The restriction applies to attorneys and other types of professional visits, as well as outside contractors, volunteers, maintenance, and any other types of non-DOC staff. Religious and emergency personnel are an exception, but will need to take a rapid test before entry starting January 18.

About 6% of the state’s 20,000 prisoners have an active COVID-19 infection as of January 12, according to data from the DOC. That’s a sharp increase since vaccinations started; active cases largely remained in the single or low-double digits throughout the summer and fall of 2021 before beginning to creep upwards in December.

The largest outbreak is at New Lisbon, where nearly 500 inmates have an active infection.

“Like the rest of the state and nation, Wisconsin DOC has seen positive cases rise sharply in this wave of the Omicron variant of COVID-19,” DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said in a press release. “DOC has not seen any corresponding increase in serious illness among people in our care, likely due to a combination of the high vaccination rate in our facilities and evidence that this Omicron variant causes less severe disease.”

About 81% of the prison population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the system’s COVID dashboard. Of those who are eligible for a booster shot, a spokesperson says nearly 52% have gotten a booster and that number is rising steadily, with about 1,100 booster shots administered in the past week. (Those who haven’t completed their vaccine series, or aren’t within the timeframe where boosters are yet approved, are not included in that number.)

“We have not seen the type of moderate to severe symptoms that we saw in the fall of 2020, when cases were very high in our institutions, and a lot of people were really sick,” DOC spokesperson John Beard said in an interview. “That was before vaccinations, obviously, as well; and it was a different variant.”

Throughout the pandemic, 33 state prisoners have died of COVID-19, according to the DOC. So far, while the DOC expects case numbers to rise, they’re hoping to continue avoiding severe illness.

“Numbers have risen very quickly, and just as experts have predicted, given the nature of this particular variant of COVID-19 and given that we operate congregate living facilities, we expect our numbers to keep going up in the short term,” Beard said.

The rising cares mirror both the general population as well as jails throughout the state. The Dane County jail recently hit a pandemic record for active COVID-19 cases, prompting the National Guard to conduct mass testing at the facility.

While prison vaccination rates have been high in Wisconsin, the less-constant jail populations have struggled to maintain high vaccination acceptance within its facilities. About 37% of the Dane County jail population in late December had been vaccinated.

Also beginning Thursday, offsite medical visits will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis and transfers between facilities may be adjusted or suspended due to the number of COVID-19 cases within their walls. Work release and other similar programs will be allowed to continue, but participants will be rapid tested two to three days per week when they return to their facilities.