By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Another Corrections employee is stepping forward to post concerns about the Evers administration’s COVID-19 testing mandate, a mandate that looks to prove costly for taxpayers and prison security.
Some State Department of Corrections prison guards have complained about what they see as the unfairness of the mandate, which requires unvaccinated state employees to be tested weekly for COVID and to report their status to an internal government tracking system.
In an email to state legislators, Tyler Brock, a second shift guard at the Stanley Correctional Institution, wrote that a fellow staff member who was vaccinated recently contracted COVID-19. Two other staff members were in close contact.
“Neither staff member who was in close contact needed a negative test result to return to work. In fact, nothing at all was done to ensure staff was negative after being in close contact with someone who is Covid-19 positive,” Brock wrote.
“How exactly is the DOC keeping people safe from Covid-19? The CDC says we are in a global pandemic, yet vaccinated staff don’t get tested and they can spread it. Inmates who go to hospitals and jails for trips and they do not get tested when they come back to the institution. Visitors who come in do not get tested. That is 3 major groups of people who are not tested coming into the institution potentially spreading Covid-19. This isn’t making sense.”
And the weekly testing, for all unvaccinated state employees, could really add up. The state Department of Administration did not answer Empower Wisconsin’s questions about the cost of the kits, but one state worker says the home kits their agency is using runs more than $100 per kit online. Even if only 10 percent of state employees remain unvaccinated, that’s still thousands of tests per week.
Brock’s email follows fellow Stanley Correctional Institution employee Katy Krumm’s message to lawmakers expressing similar concerns.
Krumm wants to know what happens when the testing requirement depletes an already overworked, short-staffed Department of Corrections.
Unvaccinated corrections staff that fail to follow the administration’s protocols are subject to discipline, up to suspension and termination.
“Currently, the DOC has an alarming number of vacancies that they cannot fill and their employees are being mandated for overtime almost daily. Even with all of us being forced continuously, Correctional Institutions statewide are being forced to run their shifts dangerously short, close vital areas and services for inmates, or otherwise limit daily activities and movement,” Krumm wrote.
Things haven’t improved much since February, when nearly 700 corrections officer positions, about 15 percent of the guard jobs, were vacant, according to DOC data. As reported at the time, the staffing shortage drove overtime costs for salary to $60 million last year at the division that oversees the state’s 36 correctional facilities.
As of Friday, Department of Corrections had 10, 250 full-time staff. DOC’s vacancy rate is 18 percent, according to agency spokesman John Beard.
“There are many DOC staff members who are overworked and dangerously tired due to vacancy issues. Now those staff members are going to get disciplined for not uploading a Covid-19 test result, for not coming in on days off to get tested, and for not taking a home Covid-19 test creating even more vacancy issues within the institution,” Brock wrote.
“The number of vacancies in the DOC is alarming, and the number of staff members getting forced to work overtime is even worse. Staff are being jammed to three, four, five, six, even seven straight days against their will because of vacancy issues. Which in turn makes it more dangerous for everyone inside the institution,” the correctional officer added.
State Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma), says short-sighted policymaking is putting prison guards, inmates and communities at risk.
“I don’t know where Evers’ head is at,” she said. “We’re seeing this at the state level and at the federal level. All kinds of policies that hurt Americans and they can’t even back them up with science.”
Felzkowski’s home is in the shadow of Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake Schools, the state’s prisons for violent youth offenders. At last report, Lincoln Hills’ staff vacancy rate was 32 percent. Waupun Correctional Institution had a 40 percent vacancy rate. A legislative committee looking into the increasing rate of violence and assaults at the youth prison couldn’t even hold a hearing with stakeholders because staff members could not get the time off, Felzkowski said.
Feeling the heat, Evers is suddenly calling for $92 million in wage increases for prison guards and nurses on top of the raises they received in the latest state budget.
Legislative sources say it’s Evers trying to throw more money at a problem that his administration has created through neglect. Now he’s making it worse to politically please the “COVID Karens in Dane County,” one source said.