COVID-19, Corrections and Clemency. A Case for Brendan Dassey
Covid-19 is emerging in the carceral institutions of Wisconsin, insinuating itself into the sterile compressed world that is home to nearly 24,000 offenders – and the wrongfully convicted Brendan Dassey. Arriving as SARS-CoV-2 viral droplets on the breath of employees, the potential for catastrophic outcomes at the hands of a seemingly inviolable disease is grievously imaginable.
A slutish pandemic attacking different age cohorts with casual fickleness; no-one is invulnerable to the manifestation of a disease altering the generational personality of millions worldwide.
WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS
On April 2nd The Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr released a statement detailing preventative measures undertaken to mitigate and limit the impact of COVID-19 within Wisconsin’s Corrections system. Among the somewhat progressive measures:
Releasing supervision holds on 1,148 non-violent misdemeanants throughout the state
Releasing other persons in custody that qualified for Certain Earned Release. These non-violent persons had less than one year to serve in prison and will be on community supervision
65 individuals participating in an Alternative for Revocation (ATR) at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) were identified and released April 2, 2020.
Absent the mention of a legislative panacea for the innocent Brendan Dassey.
As of April 9, 92 tests have been carried out, 62 returned negative, 25 pending and five positives. This represents 0.39% of the incarcerated population. Home to the innocent Brendan Dassey and three positive tests, Oshkosh Correctional Institution is, despite vital precautionary measures and adherence to guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), at increased risk of exponential growth and maximising its own infection curve.
“Unfortunately, a lot of institutions are over the design capacity,” said Claire Hendricks deputy communications director for the Department of Corrections in December 2019. “They (inmates) may well be double bunked and have two people in one room to maximise space because we do have a large population right now.”
In a facility that boasts a design capacity of 1,494, Oshkosh Correctional is the most populous facility in the state with a current inmate count of 2,049. Self-isolation is inconceivable. Built in 1986 it lies west to Lake Winnebago and sits on 273 acres of land with a staff of 546. As of April 9, no staff member had tested positive. Online media reports quote Wisconsin Corrections officials who don’t know how three more inmates in the state’s prison system contracted COVID-19. “In the absence of employees who have tested positive, we are unclear how the virus could have gotten into the prison,” cites the State Journal.
The lack of knowledge from the top echelon of the Corrections system in Wisconsin is alarming. With no indication of having initiated contact tracing in what is a structured environment is dangerously remiss.
CORONAVIRUS AND CORRECTIONS
In countries that have flattened the curve a commonality of process has been the extensive testing of not only symptomatic individuals but that of the greater population. A new study from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) suggests that 78% of people with the Coronavirus are asymptomatic; one could surmise an employee/employees at Oshkosh Correctional may figure among the 78%, inadvertently acting as a formidable source of contagion.
Flattening the curve requires concentrating on densely populated environments where individuals are unable to self-isolate, such as carceral institutions. This is simply not happening. Those incarcerated have a higher baseline of disease and comorbidities, such as asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart conditions, all of which are risk factors for negative COVID-19 outcomes. Oshkosh boasts an average inmate age of 42, (as per institutional report), this factor collides with the 30-49 age cohort where statistics show significant numbers of hospitalisation (one in five cases -CDC 2020). In the absence of extensive testing, Oshkosh Correctional will slide into a petri dish of illness, overwhelming an under resourced health response.
Mitigating the impact, Governor Evers and DOC Secretary Kevin Carr have halted new admissions and placed a moratorium on prisoner intake. However, without extensive testing of employees and inmates the asymptomatic will unknowingly ravage the already vulnerable populous of Wisconsin’s corrections system.
UNPRECEDENTED TIME - UNPRECEDENTED MEASURES
During this unprecedented time, Governor Evers is empowered to expand his criteria for clemency to support the DOC’s decarceration efforts and grant clemency or commutation to Brendan Dassey. In light of current fractious relations with the Republican legislature, other avenues including: Wis. Stat. § 302.35 "Emergency Release Power" and Wis. Stat. § 302.425 (2) "Other Release Power" are available to the Governor to help navigate the unchartered waters of his political pandemic and channel the grace needed to grant mercy to Brendan Dassey. Waiving the $7.50 medical co-pay to allow anyone exhibiting symptoms of illness to seek medical attention is not a remedy for any man, particularly not an innocent one.
Free Brendan Dassey.