COVID-19 outbreak in jail leads to laundry, food and cleaning problems

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WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- A COVID-19 outbreak is ripping through the Milwaukee County Jail, impacting inmates and staff.

CBS 58 spoke to several inmates who all say they're tired of eating the same food every day, feeling unclean, and being locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

CBS 58 is not using the names of the inmates who did on-the-record interviews because they fear retribution.

A source working in the jail sent CBS 58 video of piled up trash outside cells. Inmates and staffers tell CBS 58 it's just a glimpse at the dire conditions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

"This is not even living conditions for a dog," a man we'll refer to as Inmate 1 said.

On Jan. 7, 417 inmates, nearly half the jail population, were COVID positive according to the sheriff's office.

And inmates and their families say basically everyone is exposed.

"If one person is positive and another person is negative, they're still staying in that cell for a day or two before they move them," said Jolene, whose husband is in jail.

The outbreak hit staff, too. As of Jan. 10, 32 were positive.

Inmates tell CBS 58 they're only let out of their cells an hour a day and aren't getting basic necessities like soap and clean clothes.

"We were using the same blankets for almost a month," said another person CBS 58 will refer to as Inmate 2.

And it's the same meal, cold-cut sandwiches for lunch and dinner for weeks.

"I've lost eight lbs. already because I haven't been eating this bologna," Inmate 3 said.

Multiple people report not getting their prescribed medications.

CBS 58 asked the sheriff's office for a one-on-one interview to talk about the conditions. On Monday, Sheriff Earnell Lucas addressed the situation at a press conference. He denied claims people aren't getting medications every day, but the commander of the jail, Inspector Aaron Dobson, acknowledged sometimes it is delayed.

"Although we do have staffing shortages on the nursing side, we do ensure that med pass is done every day, on every shift," Dobson said. There are three med passes every day and at times it is delayed, but the occupants in our care get the medication they're prescribed every day."

The sheriff says on top of the staff out with COVID, there are 100 open positions at the jail. He says it's hard to fill jobs because of the pay, which is determined at the county level, not by the sheriff's office.

"Our low staffing numbers have forced us to restrict occupants' time outside their cells, while remaining compliant with state regulations," Sheriff Lucas said. "These situations are far from ideal, and out of our control."

He says inmates eat in their cells to slow the spread of COVID-19, resulting in all the trash.

"They have to stack their garbage outside the cell doors for pickup by jail workers, creating another cleaning challenge for our overburdened staff," Sheriff Lucas said.

As for food and laundry services, the sheriff says the House of Corrections is responsible for that, and there is a COVID outbreak over there, too. The House of Corrections is a separate facility and under different leadership.

"In recent weeks, both of these functions have been severely impacted by quarantines, forcing us to seek approval from regulators to serve packaged meals and to change a one-per-week linen change-out schedule," Sheriff Lucas said.

One staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, tells CBS 58 "they [jail workers] need help. They need bodies."

But so far, the sheriff's office says it's not calling in outside help, because they are meeting statutory requirements.

"What we're referring to are statutory requirements, that every occupant in the jail receive at least one hour of recreation time and that welfare checks be conducted on every occupant at least once hourly," said Theodore Chisholm, the chief of staff for the sheriff's office. "We have not had to pull in resources from outside jurisdictions, and at no time have we had to recall to service any asymptomatic, but COVID positive officers."

Inmates say some are protesting conditions, refusing to go back into their cells and intentionally flooding toilets.

"We can smell feces and urine all through this joint," Inmate 1 said.

Sheriff Lucas says the flooding happened 188 times in the last two weeks.             

"Toilet-flooding requires us to deploy specially trained employees and occupant workers to clean affected areas, creating another strain on our short-staffed facility," Sheriff Lucas said.

But the sheriff says things are improving and COVID numbers are declining. As of Jan. 10, 206 inmates are positive.

"Despite these challenges, we have met them with compassion and humanity," Sheriff Lucas said.

Still, not everyone agrees. One worker tells CBS 58 it's "madness, exhausting, awful" inside the jail, and the worker worries about the safety of inmates and staff.

"Please help us," one inmate told CBS 58. "Please understand just because we locked up for crimes doesn't mean that we not human."

Inmates tell CBS 58 they did start to get some hot meals this week for the first time since before Christmas, but it's not back to normal yet.

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