MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Two inmates with preexisting conditions joined together with Disability Rights Wisconsin and criminal defense attorneys on Friday to ask the state Supreme Court to release elderly and vulnerable inmates from the state prisons who would be at greatest risk from the coronavirus outbreak.
The release is necessary to avoid inmates stricken with COVID-19 from flooding hospitals in communities where prisons are located, argued the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
The action mirrors similar attempts by prisoner rights advocates in states across the country to release inmates who would be the most susceptible to COVID-19. The Wisconsin lawsuit comes after five inmates and eight workers at state prisons and nine inmates and at least five employees at county jails across Wisconsin have tested positive for the virus.
Spokeswomen for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and Gov. Tony Evers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court, which on Monday blocked Evers’ order to stop in-person voting in Tuesday’s election due to coronavirus fears, would have to first decide whether to hear the ACLU’s complaint before it would rule. A decision by the court could come at any time.
The ACLU asked the Supreme Court to order that Evers and Department of Corrections officials reduce the prison population to a level where social distancing is possible. The lawsuit does not call for a specific number of inmates to be released.
Evers has already ordered a stop to new admissions at the state prisons and the transfer of any inmates from other facilities, including county jails. He has also suspended visitation and paused work release programs. Those moves have removed 304 inmates, the lawsuit said.
The corrections department has also said it will release 1,148 people with nonviolent misdemeanors who were being held on probation or parole violations. They were also releasing an unspecified number of nonviolent prisoners with less than a year left on their sentences.
As of April 3, there were more than 23,000 adult inmates in the Wisconsin prison system, which is more than 5,000 above design capacity, according to the Department of Corrections. Every medium security prison was over capacity as were four of five maximum security prisons.
“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,” Chris Ott, executive director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said in a statement.
One of the inmates who brought the lawsuit, Craig Sussek, 41, was sentenced to 80 years in prison after being found guilty of attempted first-degree homicide in 1996. The lawsuit said he has been diagnosed with kidney disease and is eligible for parole.
The other, Ramond Ninneman, was convicted in December of fifth offense drunken driving and sentenced to two years in prison. Ninneman, 66, has been diagnosed with cardiac disease, the lawsuit said.
“I’m terrified that COVID-19 will turn that into a death sentence,” Ninneman’s daughter, Rana Ninneman, said in a statement.
The state Corrections Department has confirmed that five inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, three at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution and two at the Columbia Correctional Institution. Three employees have also tested positive there, as have four workers at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility and one at the Waupun Correctional Institution.
Statewide, more than 100 people have died and more than 2,800 have tested positive for the virus.