Cells empty out; COVID-19 ‘long-hauler’ chronicles battle; PFAS pollutes many La Crosse-area wells; Wisconsin’s year of pandemic, unrest and election strife


Of note: This week we highlight a story by WPR that traces the recent large drop in inmates in Wisconsin’s jails and prisons. The pandemic has put criminal trials on hold, and officials have taken steps to reduce the population to curb the spread of COVID-19, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. “We are seeing nationwide what many activists and the researchers have wanted to try, which is what happens when we reduce the prison and jail population,” Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an associate sociology professor at Brown University, told WPR. “We’re not seeing any of those tall-tale fears. My hope is the general public gets the message that we do not have to incarcerate more people to be safer, especially for small, non-violent crimes.”

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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

Wisconsin’s prison, jail populations plummet during pandemic

WPR — March 25, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the inmate population at Wisconsin’s local jails to decline by more than one-third in 2020, according to a new report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum. In December, for the first time in 20 years, state prisons and local jails held fewer than 30,000 inmates. Ari Brown, a researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum, said it’s unclear if inmate numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels in coming months. As more of the state’s population becomes vaccinated, the number of people in custody has increased slightly, but jail populations are still 24% lower than they were a year earlier, according to state Department of Corrections figures. Even as populations drop, the state’s prison population of about 19,500 remains about 2,000 inmates higher than the designed capacity of prison facilities. 

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

A year of our lives: A 12-month timeline charting the pandemic, civil unrest, an election and more

Cap Times — March 24, 2021

March 1, 2020, was a fairly typical day in Wisconsin. News on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal was a standard Sunday mix of hard news — Joe Biden wins the South Carolina primary — a local enterprise story on Madison’s homeless, and a feature on a specialty cheese enterprise in Reeseville. The only hint of things to come was a skybox directing readers to Page 8: “UW summons students home,” referring to those studying in foreign countries where the coronavirus was spreading quickly. On Page 5, President Donald Trump reacted to the first U.S. death ascribed to the coronavirus, calling the threat overblown, and a “hoax.” Within days, life as we knew it changed.

Rib Mountain resident Paul Mathis experiences lingering effects from COVID-19, despite the fact that his case was a minor one. Credit: Angela Major / WPR

‘Where am I going to be in a year?’ Paul Mathis chronicles life with symptoms that won’t go away

WPR/Wisconsin Watch — March 24, 2021

In October, Paul Mathis got COVID-19. He lost his senses of taste and smell, and he slept a lot. But overall, his case was mild. He and his wife, who was also sick, hunkered down in their Rib Mountain, Wisconsin home. His 17-year-old daughter stayed in their older daughter’s apartment for a week, and she avoided the virus.

Mathis’ fatigue, fever and congestion eased within a couple of weeks. But he didn’t really get better. He has “long haul” COVID-19, meaning that some of his symptoms have persisted for months. Symptoms will linger for 10% to 33% of COVID-19 patients, epidemiologists estimate. For Mathis, that means shortness of breath, a sudden, racing heart rate and a weaker sense of smell. 

Related coverage: Listen to Rob Mentzer’s companion report on WPR and see our full Outbreak Wisconsin project.

State to provide bottled water to all town of Campbell residents, issues water advisory

La Crosse Tribune — March 25, 2021

Multiple state agencies announced Thursday they will now provide bottled water to all town of Campbell residents after issuing a temporary drinking water advisory for the island in the wake of the PFAS contamination. This news comes after the city discovered that more than 100 private wells on French Island had been contaminated with PFAS, a toxic “forever chemical,” believed to have originated from firefighting foam used at the La Crosse Regional Airport. The state is now aware of around 185 private wells that have been tested — either by the city, town or independently by a resident — where all but one well showed amounts of PFAS.

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