Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects lawsuit asking for prisoner release.

 
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Byline: Michaela Paukner, mpaukner@wislawjournal.com

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit seeking the release of inmates from state prisons to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin'slawsuit asks the state Supreme Court to order Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Corrections officials to reduce the prison population to a number at which social distancing is possible. It also requested the appointment of a special master toorder and oversee the reduction of Wisconsin's prison population.

In an orderissued on Friday, the court said it wasmindful of the seriousness of the issues presented in the petition and had carefully considered the state's ongoing COVID-19 response at correctional centersbut ultimately decided to deny the petition to take jurisdiction of original action.

"The court is not persuaded that the relief requested, namely this court's appointment of a special master to order and oversee the expedited reduction of a substantial population of Wisconsin's correctional facilities is, in view of the myriad factual determinations this relief would entail, either within the scope of this court's powers of mandamus or proper for an original action," the order said.

Lawsuit's beginnings

At the center of the lawsuitwas a message that's become familiar: People are safer at home.

The ACLU of Wisconsin filed an emergency petition with the Wisconsin Supreme Court on April 10 asking for a writ of mandamus or an injunction under 28 U.S.C. 1983, said R. Timothy Muth, staff attorney at the ACLU of Wisconsin. He argued some Wisconsin governmental officers were not fulfilling their plain legal duty to protect people in their custody from COVID-19.

"All of the public health evidence (shows) the only effective way to avoid transmission of the disease is through social distancing, which is categorically impossible with the current population levels in the Wisconsin prison system," Muth said.

Muth said this means prisons would have to release enough people to prevent inmates from having to share their cells and to allow for social distancing in shared spaces. By early April, there were more than 23,000 adult inmates in the Wisconsin prison system, a figure that's more than 5,000 above the design capacity, according to the Department of Corrections.

The state, meanwhile,asked the high court to deny the petition, arguing the case wasn't appropriate for resolution in any court because it soughtrelief on the behalf of every incarcerated person in Wisconsin.

"As pleaded, the case is unmanageable because it will require the Court to examine the conditions at every prison and county jail in the state as applied...

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