The pandemic has Dane County Jail inmates terrified

Incarcerated people and their families report hellish conditions as the virus spreads in the downtown Madison lockup.

Incarcerated people and their families report hellish conditions as the virus spreads in the downtown Madison lockup.

Illustration by M.Rose Sweetnam. See the artist’s description at the end of this story.

Just blocks away from where right-wing protesters recklessly gathered by the hundreds this past Friday in violation of both the state’s “Safer at Home” order and common sense in the middle of a pandemic, several hundred other people find themselves in close quarters with limited options for social distancing because they are incarcerated. COVID-19 is spreading at the Dane County Jail in downtown Madison and everyone inside is at risk, whether or not they’ve been sentenced or even found guilty of a crime.

Media coverage has tracked the virus’ progress at the jail since the last days of March, when two inmates there first tested positive, quickly followed by two deputies. A national test shortage means that Dane County Jail staff have been limited in their ability to test widely and have had to be strategic about who gets tested in an attempt to determine where spread was occurring within the jail. As of this writing, almost a month later, 21 inmates and six deputies who work at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. Both numbers are sure to rise when the National Guard WING Mobile Specimen Collection team completes its testing of all inmates and staff at Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney’s request.

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly through jails and prisons across the United States. The officials charged with running these facilities faced an uphill battle keeping the disease out. People with COVID-19 can spread the disease without showing symptoms. That means screening deputies, guards, support staff, and incoming inmates for symptoms, like fever or cough, is insufficient. But the test shortage has left most of these facilities with no better options. Once inside, COVID-19 appears to move quickly through a population of people who eat, sleep, and live in close confines, where hand sanitizer is often considered contraband and soap isn’t guaranteed

Local news coverage of COVID-19 at the Dane County Jail has largely centered around Sheriff Mahoney, concern for the safety of deputies and their families, jail officials’ protocols, and the facility itself. But the families of incarcerated people, activists, and organizations that provide support for incarcerated people are helping to fill in the blanks with accounts from people inside. They’re also raising important questions about fatal flaws of the criminal justice system and the future of incarceration in Dane County.

“It’s like we in a death camp”

“Hello I’m just writing to let you know that we got out of quarantine today for about an hour then a guy came up with a fever an could barely talk or breath. We had to go back to that dirty gym once again this is the third time in a month.They keep bringing those Skytrons in here but I don’t think that they are working. I’m really starting to get scared for my health an my anxiety is through the roof .I’m not a violent person so why does it feel like I’m being punished like I’m on death row? I really hope that I don’t catch this virus but its only a matter of time due to the 6 feet distance that’s impossible to be while we are in these pods. I didn’t agree to a death sentence an I hope that the DOC see’s that. This is really starting to mess with my mental state. an I feel that this is cruel an unusual punishment. Pass this on to everyone, Facebook, the news even the ACLU of WI. I Ronald Williamson give you permission to share this.”

These words, reproduced verbatim here, were shared on Facebook on April 14 by Nino Rodriguez, an organizer with Madison’s Free the 350 Bail Fund. Ronald Williamson is currently incarcerated at Dane County Jail. The “Skytrons” he’s referring to are ultraviolet decontamination machines produced by a company called Skytron

Accounts like Williamson’s indicate that county officials aren’t doing enough to thin out the jail population and keep those inside safe from a dangerous contagion.

In an email to Tone Madison, Sheriff Mahoney defended the county’s efforts at the jail: “We have taken significant steps to reduce our population working with our partners in the criminal justice system, at this time those that remain in custody are those the courts feel need a cash bail, those who’s [sic.] sentence cannot be stayed by the courts and would not be eligible for GPS monitoring. As a result we are doing our best to provide space to social distance, provide PPE and increase medical care. At the end of the day there will always be some amount of inmates who simply cannot be released.”

That number is currently around 425 people, according to the Dane County Jail Inmate List, down from the rough average of about 750-780 inmates the jail would house under normal circumstances. Activists in Madison have joined groups around the country in calling to free them all.

Sawyer Johnson is an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), which for the past month has been at the center of a campaign to secure the release of the people who remain incarcerated at the Dane County Jail. Based on what they’ve heard from people inside, Ronald Williamson isn’t the only one feeling desperate.

“What I’m hearing is similar to that post, where people are scared and feel forgotten,” Johnson says. “And I know that’s been one of the things that we’re highlighting in protests visiting judges’ homes is the contrast of, like, you get to work from home while you leave people in the jail essentially to rot.” 

Later, Johnson shared a message from Ron Rice, another man incarcerated at Dane County Jail, who gave permission for his statement to be shared. “It’s like we in a death camp. I pray every day and night,” Rice says. Rice has had chronic asthma his entire life, but was told he’s not vulnerable enough to warrant a release. 

PSL’s campaign began with attempts to raise concerns about the jail at the first virtual Dane County Board of Supervisors meeting in March, but county officials shut the conversation down

Since then, the group has employed a variety of tactics to put pressure on the people who have some power to get folks out of jail. Those include officials the state Department of Corrections; District Attorney Ismael Ozanne; Dane County Circuit Court Judges John Hyland, Jill Karofsky (who will be sworn in as a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice this August), and Nicholas McNamara, as well as presiding Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn; and of course Sheriff Mahoney. 

Promises and a lack of data

PSL, with support from the Free the 350 Bail Fund, has urged supporters to make phone calls and send emails. They organized a noise-making motorcade around the jail, both to influence those in power and to let people inside know that they haven’t been forgotten. Later, Johnson was able to confirm with contacts inside that they heard the protest and that “people felt heartened and seen from that.”

Activists have even organized caravans to judges’ homes to try to talk to them in person. Most recently, a group drove to Judge Nicholas McNamara’s house on the west side of Madison. Liam Manjon, an organizer with Free the 350 Bail Fund who attended the action, explained that it was the first time a judge actually spoke with activists. On the other two occasions that PSL has taken the protest to a judge’s home, the police have been called on them, presumably by the judges.

In spite of these efforts to sway judges, there are still people waiting inside the Dane County Jail simply because they can’t afford to pay for bail, which the judges could waive. In the absence of action from judges, Free the 350 Bail Fund continues to raise money to cover bail for African Americans incarcerated at the Dane County Jail. Most of the time, they estimate that it would take around $1 million to cover bail just for all of the incarcerated African Americans for whom bail would lead to being released. If they included non-black people, the amount would be approximately double. 

Manjon thinks the biggest single donation the bail fund has ever received is probably close to $500. 

“Our supporters are definitely not folks who are rich,” Manjon says. “But they’re people who recognize that the jail and the criminal justice system in the United States is a tool for white supremacist capitalism and the racist status quo and they probably also recognize that jails don’t actually do much, if anything, to prevent crimes and violence in society.”

Some people are beyond the reach of the bail fund. For example, Ronald Williamson, whose message of distress at being locked up during a pandemic was shared on Facebook, falls into this category. His bail is only $1,000, but he’s under a “PO hold,” which means that he is in jail for allegedly violating a condition of his probation or extended supervision. The power to release individuals like Williamson falls to the state Department of Corrections. Even if Free the 350 can afford to cover bail for individuals on a PO hold, those people could still be stuck in jail at the discretion of the DOC.   

In his emails to me and in statements in the press, Sheriff Mahoney has repeatedly affirmed that he and his partners in the criminal justice system have already taken significant steps to reduce the jail population and protect those inside. District Attorney Ismael Ozanne did not respond to a request for comment, but a press release on the District Attorney’s website says that his office “has made extraordinary efforts in the past few weeks to reduce the population of the Dane County Jail.” It goes on to explain that the DA’s office has reviewed every case where a defendant is held on bail to determine whether that is appropriate in light of the pandemic, but that prosecutors are balancing the well-being of inmates with the need to protect the public from “the most serious, persistent criminals.” 

Nino Rodriguez and others who regularly monitor Dane County Jail data think that a significant part of the drop in the number of people inside the jail is actually just the natural high turnover at the jail combined with fewer arrests and therefore fewer new people being added to the jail overall. Rodriguez acknowledges that the offices of the Sheriff and the District Attorney have their hands full, but says it would be good to have more information to support their claims that they’ve taken dramatic steps. “But there isn’t any information that’s available for the public to really verify what they’re saying one way or another,” he says. 

Johnson and other activists with PSL are also interested in more specific information, both about the exceptions that county officials are supposedly making to allow some incarcerated people to leave the jail, and about arrests in Dane County since the COVID-19 crisis began. 

“I think [the crisis] has exposed that we don’t need to be arresting as many people as we are,” Johnson says. “And that oftentimes it’s not only racist arresting policy but that it’s unnecessarily arresting poor people on the basis of poverty. So my hope is one, that we can get some clarity right now around what criteria they’re using to release people and two, that it shapes policing practices moving forward, because now we’ve learned that as soon as the sheriff and the sheriff’s deputies don’t want to arrest people, they don’t need to.”

Cooped up and cut off

Heidi Dickeron’s husband of nearly 30 years, Charles Dickerson, is currently in the Dane County Jail, where he has been held as a federal prisoner since December 2019. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the jail, Dickerson was able to speak with her husband almost every day. 

As mounting concerns about the spread of COVID-19 led to closures and social distancing measures throughout Wisconsin, Dickerson describes asking her husband, “What are they doing for you guys in there as far as, you know, social distancing? Are you guys getting hand sanitizer? Are they cleaning the units? Are you guys getting gloves and masks? He’s like, ‘No, we’re not getting any of that.’”  

Then, Dickerson explains, another member of Charles’ unit collapsed in the bathroom and was taken away. Shortly after, he tested positive for COVID-19. The entire unit of roughly 40 men waited for hours in a gymnasium while their quarters were cleaned and disinfected. Dickerson says that it wasn’t until they returned to their quarters that they were finally given gloves and masks. But by then it was too late. The virus had already begun to spread. A few days after recounting this episode to Dickerson, Charles himself began to feel sick. Then, on Thursday, April 16, Charles didn’t call Heidi at the end of her work day like he normally would. Instead, she got a phone call from a member of Charles’ unit who wanted to let her know that her husband had spiked a fever and was taken away from the rest of the unit. 

Heidi says she called Dane County Jail officials five times over the next three days trying to find out what was happening with her husband. She knew that sick people were being taken to “seg,” or segregation, where people are sent for solitary confinement, but she had no idea if her husband had tested positive for COVID-19 or how sick he was. No one would provide Dickerson with any information but she was allowed to leave voicemail for the Dane County Jail Supervisor. When we spoke on April 22, no one who works at Dane County Jail had returned her calls. 

“If it wasn’t for my husband’s friend in there who called me and let me know that my husband was taken, I wouldn’t have known,” Dickerson told me. 

Finally Dickerson heard from her husband directly in the evening on Sunday, April 19. He had tested positive for COVID-19 and was waiting out the virus in a cell with no ventilation and no access to water with which to wash his face or hands or brush his teeth. A nurse came by every six hours to take his temperature and give him Gatorade. Dickerson says he was there for five days in total before he was moved to a holding cell with eight other men who had also tested positive for COVID-19. Their conditions vary. Charles told Heidi that some of the other men are older and have it worse than others. 

A deputy and a nurse stop by periodically to check on them. Heidi says Charles has told her they look afraid. “He’s like, it’s scary because you’re looking at them and they don’t know what to do,” she says.  

Dickerson is afraid, too. She and Charles have three daughters. Her youngest always wants to know if her dad is going to be okay. 

“Every day and every night, I have to walk around and put on this brave face and deal with my kids, and my bills, and my life, and my job and everything,” Dickerson says. “Not knowing if I might get a phone call saying, ‘Hey, your husband passed out and we got him to the hospital but unfortunately, you know, the virus—we couldn’t do anything for him.’”

Dickerson wants people to know that she’s not personally calling for the release of everyone in the jail. She just wants them to get the same care as everyone else, the care they deserve as human beings. 

Shrinking jail population, growing disparities

The racial disparity in who gets arrested and incarcerated is also significant within the context of the COVID-19 crisis. As part of his work as an organizer with Free the 350 bail fund, Nino Rodriguez evaluates the data behind who is in Dane County Jail roughly once a month. Historically, about 40 percent of the people incarcerated at the Dane County Jail are African-American, though according to US Census data, African Americans make up just 5.5  percent of the population in Dane County. When Rodriguez looked at the numbers at the beginning of April, when the number of people in Dane County Jail had dropped from about 750 to about 450, he says that the percentage of those people who were African-American was higher, around 55 percent. 

“I think what’s happening is that as the number of people who are locked up has dropped, [the people remaining] are tending to be people with more serious charges, which is going to end up being more black folks, just because of how black people are overpoliced and tend to get more serious charges [than white people] for similar behavior,” Rodriguez explains.

Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and the Black Lives Matter movement’s success in highlighting racism within the criminal justice system have led to a more common understanding of the racism and racialized impacts of mass incarceration and policing methods across the United States. More people now recognize that a disproportionate number of black and brown people wind up behind bars. 

This fact is even more important and alarming given the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, especially African Americans. In cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee, African Americans make up an outsized number of COVID-19 deaths, due to a complicated web of factors including access to healthcare and overall health outcomes, treatment within the medical system, and also the fact that African Americans are more likely to have jobs that cannot be done from home and therefore face a greater risk of being exposed to COVID-19 in the first place. Many people behind bars are already experiencing health problems as a result of these disparities and incarceration adds to their vulnerability to the virus.  

“Kicking and screaming and hollering”

A woman who asked to be identified only as a former inmate spoke with me shortly after being released from Dane County Jail late last week. She was there for nearly two months. She has high blood pressure and asthma, and worried about becoming infected with COVID-19. She began keeping a written record of events, which she took with her when she left.  

“There was so much going on and I felt we weren’t being heard,” she says. “In my brain, it’s like, if anything happens to me, I want to write everything down because I thought, ‘somebody needs to hear this.’” 

She says information about COVID-19 inside the jail was not shared with inmates, but that they learned about it from the news. They were not provided with gloves or masks, and she says it took a long time and a lot of requests before deputies consistently wore gloves themselves. 

“You got some deputies in there that take it seriously,” she says. “But you got some that’s like, ‘Well, it ain’t nothin’ but a flu. It ain’t like it it’s going to do anything.’”

As COVID-19 began to spread within the jail, inmates still weren’t told what was happening but became suspicious when deputies began getting sick. She says that no one would confirm that deputies were testing positive for COVID-19, though she and members of her unit had been expressing concerns since March that a deputy would bring COVID-19 into the jail. 

“We’re not able to leave,” she recalls saying to deputies. “Ya’ll are. And ya’ll can bring everything back to everybody.” 

She worried that even when it was possible, people weren’t being encouraged to use the social distancing measures that people were following outside of the jail, and describes women sitting together at a table, “all linked up on the bench like you would sit with your family at a picnic table at the park,” even after it was clear that COVID-19 was spreading in the jail. Nobody was wearing masks. She was also concerned when another woman in her unit developed a fever and was taken out of their unit overnight, but was returned the next day. The woman reported that after her temperature had dropped, it was decided that she was okay. When other members of the unit asked if she had been tested for COVID-19, she said no.  

Finally, on Tuesday, March 21, she says that she and the other inmates received a communication confirming what they had begun to suspect, the news that was released to the public just hours later about how after four inmates tested positive for COVID-19, 22 other men from their unit (Charles’ Dickerson’s unit) were tested, of whom 12 were found to have COVID-19, leading to the decision to bring the National Guard into the jail to conduct testing. She explains that before she left, women began sharing their loved ones’ contact information with one another, so that if they got sick and were taken to quarantine, someone could contact their family and let them know what had happened. 

On the day that she left the jail, as she waited to receive her own clothes, she says she could hear men who were being held in quarantine “kicking and screaming and hollering,” and calling to be let out.

When asked to respond to details from the accounts of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people shared here, Sheriff Mahoney disputes a number of claims. “All have masks to wear and have been encouraged to use the preventative equipment we provide them,” Mahoney says. He disagrees with the characterization that inmates are unable to take social distancing measures and says that it is untrue that inmates did not receive communications from Dane County Jail about inmates testing positive until April 21. Further, he says that every housing unit, including seg, has a sink and so it is untrue that any inmate did not have access to water. He also says that inmates are able to contact their families if they want to, over the phone or using tablets. He could not address more specific allegations, such as the above account of a woman with a fever being returned to her unit one day later, without more specific information than we were willing to provide about our sources.

An unhealthy isolation

Sonja Worthy is a community mental health case manager whose clients are often formerly incarcerated or currently incarcerated people with severe and persistent mental health issues. Her day-to-day work involves helping clients meet basic needs, whether it’s securing food, housing, or access to medication and treatment. The intent behind the program Worthy is a part of is to keep people dealing with mental illness from being arrested and incarcerated again. But sometimes her clients end up in the Dane County Jail, in some cases arrested after exhibiting symptoms of mental illness in public. 

This is not uncommon. The ability to provide mental health treatment has been cited as a “pressing need” at Dane County Jail, and has been used as an argument in favor of spending $148 million on a new jail project. Similarly, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections claimed that 41 percent of state inmates have mental health issues in its 2019-2021 budget request. Throughout the country, people struggling with mental illnesses make up a disproportionate percentage of the population inside prisons and jails. Worthy is concerned that this might get worse during the COVID-19 crisis as housing programs and halfway houses that might serve as an alternative landing place during normal times have stopped accepting new people in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities.

“Everything’s just kind of shut down,” Worthy says. “I think that for a lot of people the jail serves—unfortunately—as a kind of catch all because we invest more money in jails, prisons, and policing than other services.”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting lockdowns have not improved anyone’s mental health, inside jail or out. In some ways, Worthy points out, it’s an opportunity for people to consider how detrimental incarceration is to mental wellness. 

“I think that a lot of the people in the United States right now are experiencing a fraction of what isolation is like, what physical isolation is like. It’s kind of telling that people are like, ‘It’s like I’m in prison, it’s like I’m in jail,’” she says, referring to people in quarantine. “You’re depressed and your mental health is declining cause you’re stuck inside in the comfort of your own home, surrounded by your family members. Imagine what it’s like to be in a cell with several people you don’t know during a time like this. And if you’re experiencing a mental health crisis on top of that, it’s traumatizing.”

Worthy also stresses that the use of segregation cells for quarantining people who are sick with a potentially life threatening illness could be harmful, both because of the effects of solitary confinement on mental health and because it could discourage people in the jail with symptoms of COVID-19 from speaking up.  

While Worthy can no longer meet with clients who are incarcerated at the Dane County Jail in person due to COVID-19, she’s still able to stay in touch with clients over the phone. But the amount of time they have to speak is limited by whether or not they have money to use the phone. Because of the pandemic, people incarcerated at the Dane County Jail are given a limited number of free minutes to use the phone to talk with family, attorneys, or service providers like Worthy.

“It’s only for 30 minutes,” she says. “So they call me kind of frantic like, ‘I have this much time to tell you what’s going on with me.’”

Broader debates about the future of the Dane County Jail

Sheriff Mahoney has made the point that in a new jail facility, like the one Dane County Board approved last summer, they would be better equipped to handle this outbreak.

Activists think that the dramatic reduction in jail population and the danger that the outbreak has imposed can be an opportunity to reconsider spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a jail.“The number of people who are incarcerated in Dane County Jail doesn’t need to be what it has historically been. We have the evidence now that people don’t need to be locked up in the numbers, or at the rate, that under normal circumstances they were,” Rodriguez explains.  “I think this is an opportunity to re-examine what we’re actually doing with ‘public safety’ and law enforcement in this new world of living with COVID and on the far end of it, whenever we get past the pandemic. What is the new normal going to look like? Are we going to return to the old normal where we have really high rates of locking people up or can we sustain and expand what we’re seeing right now?”

You can get involved with the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s campaign to free the people currently incarcerated in Dane County Jail by following them on Facebook

You can contribute directly to helping incarcerated people in the Dane County Jail make bail by contributing to Free the 350 Bail Fund.  

Illustration description: “A brick building with a window looking into a jail cell, two protest signs framing the window. There is sky peeking above the building. A message written from inside a jail cell reads ‘Help We Matter 2,’ below a Black person inside the cell has their hands pressed against the window. Framing the window are two protest signs, the sign on the right reads ‘FREE THEM ALL,’ the sign on the left reads ‘COVID-19: A Sentence Shouldn’t be a Death Sentence.’”

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