COVID at Milwaukee jail 'in every pod,' inmate says

The Milwaukee County Jail is nearly in full quarantine following a surge in COVID-19 cases and staffing shortages, according to an inmate who called the situation "maddening." FOX6 heard from jail officials Wednesday evening, Jan. 5, and learned more than 200 inmates and a number of staff members have tested positive.

FOX6 News has received a number of calls and emails regarding the situation at the jail. 

"Last week, it was revealed COVID was in every pod," said Ron Schroeder, inmate.

Schroeder is facing a charge of first-degree reckless homicide, but he did not phone us Wednesday to talk about his case. Instead, he wanted to alert us to a concerning situation inside the Milwaukee County Jail.

Milwaukee County Jail

"To answer your question in one word, it’s maddening," said Schroeder.

According to Schroeder, the surge in COVID cases put 97% of the county jail under quarantine, drastically reducing the time inmates get outside their pods from eight hours to one.

"I have to go," said Schroeder during his conversation with FOX6. "They are locking the day room." 

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Schroeder said it has been like this for nearly two weeks, causing a mental strain.  Family members of inmates have also written and called FOX6, worried over what they hear is a lack of hygiene products like soap, a lack of staff and access to health care. There are also allegations inmates haven't had access to a hot meal in days.

FOX6 News reached out to the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office with questions on the COVID situation at the jail. 

Milwaukee County Jail

MCSO statement

"The Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is addressing challenges posed by the highly infectious omicron variant of COVID-19 like many institutions in the Milwaukee area. In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases and quarantines have increased significantly among agency employees and persons in our care. 

"The Sheriff’s Office currently has 62 employees and 254 jail occupants who have tested positive for COVID-19. Consistent with protocols we long had in place and to ensure the safety of everyone in the jail, the Sheriff’s Office is conducting a facility-wide round of testing between today and Friday. If asymptomatic COVID-19 cases are detected through this round of testing, the Sheriff’s Office will ensure all necessary isolation, tracing, and quarantine protocols are enacted accordingly. 

"Pursuant to Centers for Disease Control recommendations, the Sheriff’s Office requires staff working with persons in our care to wear KN-95 respirators. We are also working with partners in county government to ensure an adequate supply of KN-95 respirators are on hand, and a supply of fitted respirators, if needed. 

"The Sheriff’s Office received a variance from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections permitting the service of high-quality packaged meals to persons in our care at the jail supplied by the House of Corrections which also supplies our linens. The House of Corrections, like the jail, is working diligently through the increase in COVID-19 cases, as well as challenges brought on by staffing shortages and supply chain delays. Based on staffing levels, we have had to make other operational changes, to include reducing the amount of recreational time for occupants. Such decisions are made to ensure the safety and well-being of all in the facility and done so in communication with state regulators. 

"We have developed a contingency plan to ensure we can continue to provide our core safety services and meet our legal obligations concerning persons in our care. These contingencies include the Sheriff’s Office working with partner agencies to temporarily transfer enough occupants to other facilities and working with Milwaukee County’s medical and public health experts to implement temporary crisis staffing protocols, in accordance with similar practices employed at area (and national) hospitals. Under such a scenario, the Sheriff’s Office could recall asymptomatic but COVID-positive officers to work exclusively with COVID-positive occupants in COVID isolation facilities within the jail. Such an approach would only be implemented if all other options proved impossible, and would adhere strictly to the guidance of medical and public health professionals familiar with similar protocols used in hospital and other care settings.

"The Sheriff’s Office continues to make all decisions related to COVID-19 in close consultation with medical and public health partners, including Dr. Ben Weston, Milwaukee County’s Chief Health Policy Advisor, and the medical professionals at Wellpath, the Milwaukee County Jail’s contracted medical provider. We are committed to ensuring a safe and humane environment for all persons entrusted to our care. We are equally committed to ensuring a safe work environment for our officers. Milwaukee County Sheriff Earnell R. Lucas, said, "As we continue to grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 virus, I thank the staff at our jail, our medical provider, Wellpath, our medical and public health partners at Milwaukee County, particularly Dr. Ben Weston and others for helping us ensure we provide the highest possible care to persons in our care, adhere to highest standards of our profession and deliver the high level of service that the people of Milwaukee County deserve.

Milwaukee County court impacts

On Wednesday, a court clerk told FOX6 inmates were not being produced for appearances in court because of the quarantine inside the jail. A high-profile homicide trial was postponed this week because a judge tested positive.

FOX6 received the below statement Wednesday from Chief Judge Mary Triggiano regarding the impact this is having on the Milwaukee County court system:

"The Milwaukee County Courts along with other court stakeholders continue to face and address unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19 including the highly infectious omicron variant.  As the holidays ended and people returned to court, we became aware of COVID-19 cases and quarantines among some judges, court staff, public defenders, assistant district attorneys, sheriff deputies, jail officers and others which, in turn, has impacted our ability to conduct some court business including adjourning a limited number of jury trials.  

However, because Milwaukee County Courts perform an essential service, we have and will continue to take an aggressive, but safe, approach to staying open during the pandemic. In fact, the Milwaukee County Judges were among the first in Wisconsin to resume jury trials and in person cases with safety precautions in summer of 2020. And we did so safely. Since the initial reopening, Milwaukee County Courts have followed a stepwise approach to help our criminal courts reach full capacity to match pre-COVID operational levels in order to address our case backlog. This approach has prioritized the safety of all who participate including jurors, witnesses, families, litigants and staff."

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