About three dozen people gather outside the Wisconsin governor’s mansion in Maple Bluff, Wis., on Nov. 24, 2020. Event organizers sought to draw attention to the thousands of inmates and staff who have contracted COVID-19 in state prisons and called for Gov. Tony Evers to slow the spread of the disease by reducing overcrowding in prisons. Before the pandemic, Evers set a goal to cut the state’s prison population in half. But 23 state prisons still exceed their designed capacity. Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Inmates lack protection; fixing broken unemployment system; school restraint use documented; lawmakers get tax break; WI high court hides racial disparity stats


Of note: This week we highlight two Wisconsin Watch stories that investigate broken systems that are failing some of the state’s vulnerable residents. Reporter Vanessa Swales investigated how well inmates in Wisconsin’s overcrowded prison system were being protected from COVID-19. She found that more than half of the state’s inmates have been infected and that mitigation efforts — such as mask-wearing, distancing and cleaning — are spotty at best. Bram Sable-Smith, reporting for WPR and Wisconsin Watch, outlines steps that Wisconsin could take to improve its crumbling unemployment system, which has left many jobless people without assistance for weeks and months.

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Signs and posters are left outside the Wisconsin governor’s mansion in Maple Bluff, Wis., on June 18, 2020, as part of a “Drive to Decarcerate” event. Those attending urged Gov. Tony Evers to release inmates from Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons to slow the spread of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, Evers set a goal to cut the state’s prison population in half. But 23 state prisons still exceed their designed capacity. Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

‘He shouldn’t have had to die’: COVID-19 infects half of Wisconsin inmates, five times the overall state rate

Wisconsin Watch — February 13, 2021

Calvin Johnson spent his final weeks at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution wracked in pandemic anxiety, a former cellmate recalled. He closely tracked COVID-19’s spread in and outside of the medium-security state prison — eyeing daily infection counts in surrounding Crawford County and across Wisconsin. Hearing the slightest cough would put him on edge within the cramped cell that he shared with three other inmates. The 52-year-old lived with high blood pressure and asthma and feared a COVID-19 outbreak at overcrowded Prairie du Chien Correctional Facility would kill him. In October 2020, he asked a judge to modify his 13-year sentence due to the pandemic. Johnson died of COVID-19 the next month. 

First-ever report shows half of Wisconsin schools secluded or restrained students last year — some more than 100 times

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — February 18, 2021

Experts say educators should only physically restrain or isolate a student as a last resort, when there’s no other way to stop their dangerous behavior, but a new annual state report shows half of Wisconsin schools used those measures at least once last year. Some schools reported hundreds of incidents of seclusion and restraint; others none. Those with the most incidents tended to be elementary schools that serve a large number of students with disabilities — but many schools fit that description, yet report rarely or never using the practices.

Businesses tied to Speaker Robin Vos and other lawmakers could see taxes cut after they took PPP loans

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — February 13, 2021

Businesses owned by Wisconsin lawmakers stand to benefit from legislation signed by Gov. Tony Evers Thursday to cut taxes for employers who received Paycheck Protection Program loans. At least eight legislators or their families have an ownership stake in businesses that received PPP loans, records show. Among them are Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Republican Sen. Joan Ballweg of Markesan, who as a member of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted in favor of the tax cut. The state tax cut could also help Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of rural Dane County, who received a loan for his sign shop last year.

Amy Moreland is seen on the balcony of her apartment in Madison, Wis., on Jan. 29, 2021. Moreland received unemployment aid after losing her job as a bartender and events coordinator due to the pandemic. She briefly returned to work during the summer when bars opened for outdoor seating, but she was again laid off in November as cold weather arrived. After she applied a second time for compensation, her account was locked for possible fraud, and she waited 13 weeks for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development to verify her identity. Credit: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

‘I got nothing left’: Wisconsin’s jobless pushed to brink as ideas swirl for mending torn safety net

Wisconsin Watch — February 18, 2021 

Brandon Cacek filed for unemployment insurance in mid-March last year after losing his substitute teaching job due to the pandemic. He’s still waiting for that crucial aid 11 months later.  “The longer this goes on the less hope that lingers,” he said. Cacek, 40, remains stuck on an obstacle course that has kept thousands of jobless Wisconsinites from quickly receiving compensation as the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development wades through a record number of claims during the pandemic. The crisis has exposed a hopelessly antiquated computer system that literally cannot answer phones and print checks at the same time.

Bice: Supreme Court didn’t release study showing Black men 28% more likely to do prison time in Wisconsin

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — February 13, 2021

For nearly a year, state Supreme Court officials sat on a court-authorized study that found clear racial disparities in the sentencing of felons by Wisconsin courts. The 23-page report, completed in January 2020, concluded that Black men convicted of felonies have a 28% greater chance of ending up in prison in Wisconsin than white men. The odds of Black men receiving prison time are even higher for more serious felonies. Called “Race and Prison Sentencing in Wisconsin,” the study found a similar bias in the sentencing of Hispanic men and an even worse one for Native American men convicted of felonies.

The byline "Wisconsin Watch" represents members of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism's editorial and public engagement and marketing staff.