Photo: WI Dept. of Corrections

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin wants fewer inmates in state prison during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit to that effect in the Wisconsin Supreme Court Friday. The organization claims that’s needed to avoid a dangerous outbreak that would further strain the state’s health care capacity and put public health at risk.

“Right now Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons are a ticking time bomb that threatens the health of all Wisconsinites, especially people of color who are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration,” said Chris Ott, ACLU of Wisconsin executive director. “The very modest steps taken so far by state officials are simply not enough to prevent an outbreak that would strain our hospital system, endanger public health, and claim thousands of lives. State officials have the power to avert this catastrophe – and they have to act now.” 

The suit, filed on behalf of two inmates with pre-existing conditions, state criminal defense lawyers, and Disability Rights Wisconsin, asks the court to order Governor Tony Evers and the Department of Corrections to reduce the prison population to a level where social distancing is possible, with priority to the elderly and those with conditions that increase their risk of COVID-19 complications and death.

According a press release announcing the lawsuit, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections holds almost 23,000 adults in facilities with a design capacity of 17,815, thus exceeding their capacity by more than 30%. 

The ACLU says so far DOC has reduced that population by just 1.3%, leaving tens of thousands of people incarcerated in overcrowded conditions where social distancing and other mitigation measures recommended by public health experts are impossible.

The lawsuit notes that an outbreak of COVID-19 in Wisconsin prisons could overwhelm available hospital beds and ICU units in communities where prisons are located.

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