Prison stresses sanitation, masks, testing, quarantines

After getting to August 18 with just one confirmed COVID-19 infection, Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution (KMCI) currently has the highest number of active positive cases of any correctional facility in the state.

The medium-security prison is located just east of the Sheboygan County line north of highway 67. It was originally opened in 1962 as a boys school and converted to a medium-security facility for adult males in 1974. Designed to house 783, it now holds a population of 1,130.

Just seven of the 37 state facilities tracked on the Department of Corrections COVID dashboard list active COVID cases as of Thursday Sept. 18: KMCI with 77; Dodge Correctional (67), Racine (44), Green Bay (36), New Lisbon (8), Oshkosh (3), and Robert E. Ellsworth (1).

A series of questions and answers about how the state is responding to the COVID health crisis at KMCI and the corrections system in general, between The Beacon and John Beard, Director of Communications for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, follows.

– In general, what types of precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of COVID at this facility?

We’ve taken a lot of precautions at all DOC facilities, including enhanced cleaning protocol and decreased movement of persons in our care. Unfortunately, we’ve had to suspend some programming and switch from in-person visitation to video visitation.

We’ve made hand sanitizer available in common areas.

We’ve re-emphasized to staff and persons in our care the importance of good hand-washing practices and face coverings. We have requirements for face coverings in our institutions. Currently, staff is required to wear a face coverings at all times when entering and inside the building, except when they are eating, drinking or in an office by themselves. Persons in our care are required to wear face coverings in common areas, but not in their rooms.

Also, the mass testing we’ve done in coordination with the Department of Health Services and the Wisconsin National Guard is a major preventative measure. It helps us get an accurate number of positive cases, including asymptomatic positive cases. Once we know who has the virus, we can isolate those who tested positive, and also quarantine and monitor the conditions of those who were exposed.

– Are masks currently required for all inmates as well as staff?

Yes. Currently, staff members are governed by statewide guidance for state workers, which calls for wearing face coverings at all times when entering and inside a state building, which includes DOC institutions. There are exceptions for when they are eating, drinking or in an office by themselves. I would also point out some of our institutions had mask requirements in place before the statewide guidance.

Persons in our care are required to wear face coverings in common areas, but not in their rooms.

– Is the visitation policy affected?

The DOC suspended in-person visitation at all facilities in March. Since then, we have worked to supply all facilities with equipment for video visitation, which has helped persons in our care stay in contact with their loved ones. It’s not the same as in-person interaction, but it is the safer option at this time due to the pandemic. Some of our facilities had 700+, 800+ Zoom visits in August. Kettle Moraine had close to 600.

– How is health care for positive cases handled? Is outside health care available, or is it all on-site?

First, we isolate those infected, and quarantine and monitor those exposed. This allows us to limit the spread of the virus inside a facility while allowing those who are infected to recover. This process helped us limit previous outbreaks at Waupun Correctional Institution and Green Bay Correctional Institution. The number of active cases at Green Bay Correctional was more than 250 a few weeks ago and active cases are down to 36 today.

Our Health Services Unit in each institution has a duty, the same as any medical provider in the community, to their patients. The Health Services Unit at each facility makes individual treatment plans for each person, and their decisions are based on medical needs. If they cannot provide the appropriate care at the institution, we would quickly transport them to a facility that can provide a more advanced level of care. That goes for COVID-19 or any other medical issue.

– Have there been any hospitalizations for COVID at the facility?

I cannot answer that question specific to Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution. As a HIPPA-covered entity, the DOC cannot reveal that information due to concerns it could violate laws governing protection of personal health information. I can tell you, statewide, the DOC has had approximately 10 persons in our care hospitalized since the onset of the pandemic; however, note that that number is approximate because some might have been admitted to the infirmary/hospital due to another condition and also tested positive for COVID-19.

– There have been at least two mass-testing events conducted at KMCI by the WI National Guard. Are the recent increase in cases related to a mass-testing event?

There was mass testing with the National Guard at KMCI at the very beginning of this month. And there were some positive tests returned as a result of that testing. But it is my understanding many of the positive tests returned this week were tests of symptomatic individuals taken after that mass testing was completed. In addition to testing with the National Guard, DOC health services staff at each institution test those who are symptomatic or exposed. They also test at intake, transfer and release.

– How often are staff and inmates tested?

This varies by institution and need. We’re basically doing two types of testing right now in coordination with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and conducted by the Wisconsin National Guard.

There is our routine testing that is scheduled in advance and prioritizes facilities that have a) previously seen a higher number of cases and b) those located in areas with higher levels of community spread.

There is also outbreak testing. When we start to see an elevated number of cases among staff and/or those in our care, our DOC Emergency Operations team works with the Wisconsin National Guard to update the testing schedule and prioritize testing at those facilities. The Guard has been very flexible in working with us to quickly respond in such cases.

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