Two weeks ago AbolishMKE broke a story about cell searches at the Racine prison (RCI) preceding new COVID cases and a quarantine. We sent the story to reporters (only Wisconsin Examiner seems to have picked it up) and asked readers to contact DOC officials demanding an end to cell searches, or “shakedowns.”
Sarah Cooper, head of the Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) responded instead with more and worse shakedowns. According to a message from someone held at RCI, staff pulled everyone out of their cells at 9:30pm on March 5 for a surprise shakedown. Captives were brought to the gym and forced to sit together on the bleachers “thigh to thigh” for two hours while guards went through the cell block touching everyone’s property.
Contacts at other facilities have confirmed that cell searches and stricter enforcement of property limitations are happening across the Wisconsin prison system. Someone held at the Waupun prison (WCI) wrote that their cells often get searched while they are out taking showers or making phone calls.
In other facilities, contacts have reported the DOC increasing seizures of typewriters, tablets, radios, and other property. The DOC gets away with stealing this stuff by making rules outlawing people from keeping things that have been damaged or that were gifts from other captives on their way to release.
The DOC has always engaged in invasive property searches. They have a real zeal for stealing people’s property, including their money. During a pandemic and extended lockdown such practices are especially cruel and unnecessary. Outside of the obvious risk of spreading the disease, the property seizures are also depriving people of items they really need.
With visitation cancelled, typewriters and tablets are needed to write letters and emails to loved ones outside. These devices also provide people with a way to pass lockdown time and get their mind off the risk of COVID exposure and sickness. Shakedowns also confiscate extra linens from people, but those linens help people who can’t afford overpriced sweatshirts to keep warm in the cold winter months.
It took Sarah Cooper, head of the Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) a few days to reply to our call to action. When she did, her email was a classic bureaucratic non-response. “As the new DAI Administrator,” she wrote, “I’d like to acknowledge your position on this issue. I’d also like reassure you we are committed protecting the health and safety of people in our care and our staff.” [sic]
We wrote back, asking her directly if there were still shakedowns occurring and explaining that, “If you’re searching people’s cells during a pandemic to enforce property limits, you cannot claim a commitment to people’s health and safety. You’re putting enforcement of a rule about towels and sheets above people’s lives.” We politely asked her to, “please answer my question and address the public’s concern with more than empty reassurances.” Here’s her response:
“We will continue to operate the facilities in a safe and secure manner. This is a multi-pronged effort which includes following recommendations to prevent the spread of the virus and continuing with security protocols such as conducting searches in a safe manner. I trust this answers your question.”
That email came on March 2, three days later, RCI was packing people on gym bleachers for two hours while going through their cells.
Under the previous DAI head, Makda Fessahaye, a memo went out to all the wardens recommending that they cease shakedowns to protect against the pandemic spreading. Despite these precautions, the DOC was hit with massive outbreaks infecting more than half of the population and killing an unknown number. The DOC admits to letting 25 people die of COVID, but that number is questionably low considering the high exposure rate.
Sarah Cooper is on track to get the rest of the prison population infected, and thanks to suspicious reporting and lack of accountability in the DOC, we may never know how many more will die due to her carelessness.