DOC should be more open about COVID-19

2020 Columns

In late October, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections finally disclosed the number of COVID-19 deaths among people incarcerated in state prisons. That’s good news. But it’s troubling that this disclosure, which revealed that at least five state inmates have died, came only after months of delaying, obfuscating and covering up.

And the DOC is still trying hard to hide information about the COVID-19 epidemic.

Under the leadership of Secretary Kevin Carr, the agency previously refused to release the numbers because, it said, to do so would violate federal privacy laws. That excuse was transparently weak and baseless. Other states, after all, were already releasing this information. And using DOC’s logic would mean fire departments could not report fire fatalities and the Department of Transportation could not report highway deaths.

But the DOC now says it will only report deaths once the cause is confirmed, which could take weeks or months, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The mere fact that inmates die after contracting COVID-19 will not be enough to trigger disclosure.

Still, it’s a start. The information absolutely should be in the public domain. It helps to show how well the people in charge of controlling the pandemic are doing and it provides accountability for a system that is mostly inaccessible to the general public.

But it’s just a start. DOC’s track record on providing pandemic-related information is spotty at best. Yes, the dashboards that report on COVID-19 cases in prison are useful, assuming they are accurate, but they are limited.

My group, the Wisconsin Justice Initiative, filed an open records request with DOC six months ago requesting information on its pandemic-related policies and how infected inmates are quarantined or isolated, among other things. DOC has yet to provide a single document.

In addition, the agency’s 2021-23 budget request omits any useful description of major challenges faced by the prisons. There is, for example, no discussion of any changes related to or inspired by COVID-19, or even what pandemic-related costs DOC anticipates for next fiscal year and beyond.

It is difficult to understand why Carr is so reluctant to provide the public with this information. There are tens of thousands of people inside and outside of prisons directly involved — inmates, obviously,but  also prison staff, and the families and loved ones of both those groups.

Yes, it is great that the DOC will now tell how many “people in its care” (to use the agency’s euphemism) die of COVID-19. But its transparency comes only after bloviation didn’t work. Worse, the agency still is not being open about the pandemic; it is still hiding way too much.

So when DOC totals up those COVID-19 fatality numbers, maybe it should add one more – its own credibility.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, a group dedicated to open government. Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.