Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects prisoner release request

MADISON — The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday rejected a lawsuit seeking the release of inmates from state prisons as a way to reduce the risk of them contracting the coronavirus.

The court, in an unsigned order, declined to take up a lawsuit filed earlier this month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin on behalf of two inmates with preexisting conditions. The court said it was not within its powers to assign someone to determine which inmates should be released, as the lawsuit sought. It also said it wasn't proper for an original action filed directly with the Supreme Court, rather than first making its way through lower courts.

In rejecting the case, the court noted that the Corrections Department had taken steps to mitigate risks to inmates.

Larry Dupuis, legal director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, said he was disappointed with the decision, but he didn't say whether the group would re-file the lawsuit in circuit court. He said the ACLU would continue to press the governor and state officials to take action.

“If the (Department of Corrections) continues to bury its head in the sand, we fear that may lead to bodies being buried in the near future,” Dupuis said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the Corrections Department did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The ACLU argued for the release, saying Wisconsin's overcrowded prisons were ripe for outbreaks of COVID-19, putting inmates who are elderly or have preexisting conditions at risk. As of April 17, there were more than 22,500 adult inmates in the Wisconsin prison system, which is more than 4,800 above design capacity, according to the Department of Corrections.

The department confirmed that 13 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday, which was up from five on the day the lawsuit was filed two weeks ago. Eight were at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution, two were at the Columbia Correctional Institution and three were at the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility.

The lawsuit mirrored similar attempts by prisoner rights advocates in other states to release inmates who would be the most susceptible to the coronavirus.