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

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Posted at 8:17 AM, Feb 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-14 09:17:12-05

Calvin Johnson spent his final weeks at Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution wracked in pandemic anxiety, a former cellmate recalled. He closely tracked COVID-19’s spread in and outside of the medium-security state prison — eyeing infection counts in surrounding Crawford County and across Wisconsin.

Johnson, who grew up in Milwaukee and was affectionately called “Chicken,” wore a mask at all times in the cramped cell that he shared with three others, said Randy Forsterling, one of the cellmates. Johnson, 52, lived with high blood pressure, asthma and the sense that COVID-19 would kill him.

“I was given 13 years for my crime. I was not given a death sentence,” Johnson, who was convicted of armed robbery in 2016, wrote in an Oct. 19 request to modify his sentence for health reasons.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Milton Childs denied the request about a week later.

Johnson’s health declined over the next month, and he died at a La Crosse County hospital on Nov. 30. The cause: complications from COVID-19.

The Prairie du Chien prison was designed to hold 326 inmates, but about 500 packed the prison during Johnson’s final week alive. The facility has reported 413 inmate infections during the pandemic.

The coronavirus has run rampant across Wisconsin’s prisons, infecting at least 2,153 staff members at adult institutions and 10,786 inmates throughout the pandemic — more than half of the inmate population. The state has detected infections among inmates at a rate more than five times higher than in the general population. At least 25 inmates have died, according to DOC data. John Beard, an agency spokesman, declined to say whether any prison staff had died of the virus.

Advocates fear more inmates have died; the agency hasn’t updated its COVID-19 death toll since Jan. 7, and county medical examiners say determining a cause of death can sometimes take weeks or months.

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