COVID outbreak at House of Corrections causes delays in laundry, work release

NOW: COVID outbreak at House of Corrections causes delays in laundry, work release

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WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- CBS 58 is continuing its series on how COVID-19 is impacting our local correctional facilities.

Last week CBS 58's Kristen Barbaresi reported on the Milwaukee County Jail. Now, she looks into conditions at the House of Corrections. That’s a facility that houses inmates awaiting trials, those with shorter sentences and those who have Huber, also known as work release privileges.

The superintendent of the Milwaukee House of Corrections, Chantell Jewell, says COVID-19 numbers are constantly changing, and right now they are recovering from the latest outbreak, finally restoring things like hot food service.

Still, some inmates are frustrated with conditions. CBS 58 is not naming them because they are worried about retribution.

The new year started with a surge in COVID numbers across the country and inside the Milwaukee House of Corrections, where it can spread quickly despite mask policies.

"It's the congregate living setting where we have 40 individuals in one dormitory, and we have now with this Omicron we see, that people are not even symptomatic," said Milwaukee House of Corrections Superintendent Chantell Jewell.

On Dec. 23, 139 inmates were positive. The numbers went down but spiked again Jan. 7 to 170. That included 100 positive people HOC took from the jail to help with the outbreak at that facility.

Jewell says despite a 93 percent vaccination rate among staff, the outbreak hit them hard.

"Impact is there's a lot of overtime," Jewell said. "So because we're 24/7 operations and we have to have staff, people are oftentimes have to work double shifts for us here."

At the peak of the outbreak, staffing shortages led to disruptions in laundry services.

"I moved from a COVID dorm to a non-COVID dorm and I was forced to wear the same clothes for two days after asking a CO to get me new clothes so I could change," said one man, who CBS 58 will call Inmate 1.

Inmates tell CBS 58 that meant the same cold meals, day in and day out.

"Our first hot meal we had was two days ago," said a man CBS 58 will call Inmate 2. "We were eating bologna sandwiches for 28 days straight."

Attorney Jonathan LaVoy has a client who tells a similar story.

"They're not given any nutrition," LaVoy said. "My client has lost 15 lbs. in 18 days of being there."

Jewell says things are improving.

As of Monday, Jan. 17, 19 inmates are positive, 15 of them came from the jail. There are also 30 staff members who are positive or in quarantine due to exposure. She says services are back up and running, though inmates are still kept in the dorms.

"We want to minimize spread as much as possible," Jewell said. "So we have to limit movement within a facility, which means that we have to, we're individually not able to have recreational activities outside of the dormitories."

But LaVoy says there are still problems. His client was supposed to have work release privileges, but that didn't happen.

CBS 58 spoke to him after his release over the weekend. He was serving a 30-day sentence for a misdemeanor but was let out after 20 days for good behavior.

"I'm vaccinated, I tested negative for COVID and my drug test was clean," the former inmate said.

He says before going in for his sentence on Dec. 26, he called the House of Corrections to make sure he would be able to work.

"They told me any ranging from you could be out the same day to two to three days," the former inmate said. "So just leading up to going I made sure I had all the necessary documentation."

He says he's lucky he didn't get fired.

"I ended up using all of my vacation and had to take some unpaid days, but fortunately I was able to keep my job," he said.

But he says others might not be as fortunate.

"I know for a fact there are other people I was with in that dorm that are in the exact same position as me, that might have three, four months," he said.

LaVoy says he can't get a straight answer about why his client never got out.

"When you talk to HOC they give you several different reasons," LaVoy said. "The primary theme is COVID has overrun their facility and they have very short staff."

Jewell maintains those with work release privileges are still getting out, but they are put in a 14-day quarantine when they arrive. She is not aware of any exceptions.

But LaVoy says that wasn't true for his client. Now he's recommending other clients delay settling their cases, because not being able to work can cause people to lose wages, jobs and even health insurance.

"Most of our clients right now are out on bail, so most of them are living at home. So we're not advising them to go into any sort of plea agreement where Huber would be on the table," LaVoy said.

LaVoy says one thing that could help with the problem is to put non-violent misdemeanor offenders on electronic monitoring straight from court, instead of processing them through the jail. He says that used to be the process.

"It makes no sense to me that they basically take an inmate who is vaccinated, COVID-free, and place them in the jail," LaVoy said. "These bracelets are affordable. They charge inmates for them, so it's paid for by the inmate, not the county."

Jewell doesn't agree.

"We have to be -- we have to make sure that we're screening and making sure that we're making appropriate releases to the community," Jewell said.

Instead, Jewell says they are doing their best to stop the spread of COVID-19: requiring masks, weekly testing and educating inmates about the vaccine and offering a $50 incentive for them to get the shot.

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