OXFORD, WISCONSIN — McKenzie and Ryan McMillan write “patience and persistence” in almost every letter they send to one another. The married couple hasn’t seen each other in six months and communication is limited, so the phrase serves as a reminder to persevere.

They have required patience and persistence in abundance in recent months while Ryan McMillan waits to be released from federal prison.

Numbers show someone is significantly more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 in custody than the general public.

McMillan is serving a felon in possession of a firearm sentence at Federal Correctional Institution, Oxford, a medium security male prison in central Wisconsin. He is scheduled to be released Sep. 25 to a halfway house, but the McMillans argue that he should already be home in St. Paul with McKenzie and their daughter as part of expanded release guidelines during the pandemic.

“I just want a better world for (my daughter), and she needs him home,” McKenzie McMillan said.

FCI Oxford is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, part of the U.S. Department of Justice. During a June 2 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Caravajal acknowledged the inherent difficulties in safeguarding against COVID-19 in federal correctional facilities.

“Prisons are not designed for social distancing,” Caravajal said. “In fact, they are designed for just the opposite.”

Because of that fact, Attorney General William Barr, the top DOJ official, wrote two memos this spring directing the Bureau of Prisons to expand home releases. That would decrease the number of incarcerated people and ideally make prisons less populated and less dangerous during coronavirus.

“There are some at-risk inmates who are nonviolent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement rather than BOP facilities,” Barr wrote in a March 26 memo.

The McMillans believe Ryan qualifies under Barr’s guidelines. Home confinement is essentially house arrest and would require him to wear an ankle monitor. While Ryan would be under BOP custody until next March as part of his sentence, home confinement would allow him to live with his wife and daughter. That is different than a halfway house, which means he would be apart from his family and reside with other people recently released from correctional facilities or recovering from substance abuse.

Despite their belief that Ryan is eligible for early release, the McMillans’ past several months have been marred by fear, confusion and lack of communication. Instead of Ryan residing in a loving home environment, he remains imprisoned.

FCI Oxford did not explain why Ryan McMillan remains in the facility but is “urgently reviewing all inmates to determine which ones meet the criteria established by the Attorney General,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to the Leader-Telegram.

According to McKenzie, Ryan has lived in the FCI Oxford special housing unit since March. She said he volunteered to go there “due to his disengagement from the politics and gangs within prison.”

In the SHU, Ryan shares a cell with another man. According to McKenzie, her husband has little access to information and only leaves his cell for 30 minutes of daily exercise.

“Who knows what he does?” McKenzie McMillan said. “You eat, sleep and are in your bathroom 23-and-a-half hours a day.”

FCI Oxford did not answer Leader-Telegram questions about McMillan’s living situation, saying it does “not speak to a specific inmate’s conditions of confinement,” according to a spokesperson email. FCI Oxford also declined a request to interview Ryan McMillan.

Citing personal privacy laws, the BOP denied a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Leader-Telegram to obtain correspondence related to Ryan McMillan from the FCI Oxford warden’s office. A FOIA request to obtain correspondence regarding COVID-19 from the warden’s office is pending.

McKenzie said Ryan has not felt any symptoms of COVID-19, but psychological issues may continue after his release. He is driven and headstrong, but near-isolation imposes an immense toll. McKenzie has sensed her husband’s growing anxiety during recent phone conversations. The couple is allowed one 15-minute call every 15 days.

McKenzie McMillan is a licensed graduate social worker, holding a full-time job as a foster care program manager and part-time role as a child protection social worker in the Twin Cities. Because of her occupations, she is familiar with the justice system but has largely been thwarted when attempting to receive information about her husband’s status.

The threat of COVID-19 infection hangs over Ryan’s release, and McKenzie is most frustrated by what she called the lack of responsibility displayed by the Bureau of Prisons during the coronavirus.

“The BOP seems to have no accountability to anyone,” McKenzie McMillan said. “Their feet are held to the fire and they don’t have answers … It’s a complete lack of response and just ignoring very clear directives in a time that is really scary for folks inside and for families.”

By speaking publicly, McKenzie hopes to spread awareness of how common their challenges are.

“I want this story to get out not just for my personal reasons,” she said. “So many other folks are dealing with this. … Families are scared to fight against the system.”

‘Lack of response’

During the June 2 senate hearing in which the BOP director said prisons are not designed for social distancing, Dr. Scott Allen, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of California Riverside, said overcrowding and inadequate medical care make prisons particularly vulnerable to communicable diseases like COVID-19.

One of the ways to lessen the likelihood of an outbreak involves decreasing a prison’s population by releasing incarcerated people.

In a written response to a senator’s question, Allen said “minimal reductions of 25-30% are necessary to allow for minimal social distancing and for the flexibility to rearrange people.”

FCI Oxford, located in Adams County about 130 miles southeast of Eau Claire, has reduced its prisoner population from 1,004 people on March 1 to 881 people as of Aug. 22, a decrease of about 12%.

That means overcrowding, such as Ryan McMillan sharing a cell, is likely still happening during the worst pandemic in a century. (BOP spokesperson Justin Long wrote in an email that “inmates housed together in a cell are distanced from other inmates and wear face coverings when in common areas where they go in small groups”).

The impact of overcrowding disproportionately affects people like McMillan, who is Black. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018 Black people made up 12% of the country’s population but 33% of its incarcerated population.

David Carlson, rights for all regional organizer with the ACLU of Wisconsin, is based in the Chippewa Valley. He said the coronavirus has amplified public health and criminal justice weaknesses, and those challenges are not going away.

“COVID-19 has exposed the inhumanity of incarceration,” Carlson wrote in an email. “We have two choices: reconstruct the system of ‘justice,’ or choose to begin seeing our fellow citizens die in 10-by-6-foot concrete and steel boxes.”

An April public health declaration from three Wisconsin epidemiologists urged decarceration to make correctional facilities safer during the pandemic. Lorraine Halinka Malcoe, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee associate professor of epidemiology, co-authored the declaration. It concluded that the main challenges in prisons are: confined spaces; no protocol for asymptomatic testing; many people living in close quarters; subpar cleaning routines; poor medical options; and disproportionately high numbers of people with underlying health conditions.

“It’s virtually impossible to control outbreaks in prisons,” Malcoe said.

To adequately combat the spread of COVID-19, consistent testing must happen for everyone inside prisons, not only those displaying possible symptoms, according to Malcoe. That includes incarcerated people and employees.

“It’s very easy for guards to be asymptomatic and go in and out and then infect prisoners,” Malcoe said. “What happens in a prison doesn’t stay in a prison.”

The BOP initially only tested people showing COVID-19 symptoms but “has begun additional testing of asymptomatic inmates to assist in slowing transmissions within a correctional setting,” Long wrote in an email.

‘Growing problem’

From talking with people in prison and public defenders in recent months, Malcoe said many behind bars are scared, particularly if they have underlying health conditions. During the time of coronavirus, being incarcerated can feel like a death sentence, she said.

A recent analysis supports that sentiment. According to a July study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, from March 30 to June 6, there were 42,107 cases of COVID-19 among 1,295,285 people in state and federal prisons. That equals a case rate of 3,251 per 100,000 people, or 3.25%, which was five-and-a-half times higher than the U.S. population rate.

Case rates are even higher when isolating federal prisons. As of Aug. 22, according to the BOP coronavirus website, 11,728 of its 141,524 total incarcerated people, or 8.3%, have tested positive for COVID-19. For BOP staff, 1,497 people out of about 36,000, or 4.2%, have had positive tests.

The study also found that 510 deaths from COVID-19 complications occurred in state and federal prisons. That means the COVID-19 death rate was 39 people per 100,000, about 34% higher than the U.S. population rate. When prison populations are adjusted for age relative to the country’s overall population, people in prison are three times more likely to die.

Death rates, too, are higher in federal prisons. As of Aug. 22, the BOP confirmed that 116 incarcerated people and one staff member have died from COVID-19, a rate of 66 people per 100,000.

One of the study’s co-authors Brendan Saloner, associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University, said the data confirmed his worst fears when the pandemic began.

“It just was a disaster waiting to happen,” Saloner said.

The study used information collected by the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. As of Aug. 22, the UCLA database shows that FCI Oxford has four confirmed COVID-19 cases for staff, two of whom have recovered, and one confirmed case for a resident, who has recovered. FCI Oxford has had zero confirmed deaths related to COVID-19.

The database provided important figures but has limitations, including incomplete information regarding coronavirus testing. Many correctional facilities only test symptomatic people, rather than every person, so it is possible that asymptomatic people who are infected have not been tested.

Because of incomprehensive testing, Saloner believes COVID-19 cases and deaths at prisons, which institutions self-report, underestimate the impact of the virus.

“I think there is a lot of undetected coronavirus that is working its way through prisons as we speak,” Saloner said. “This is just the start of a growing problem.”

What’s being done?

Long, the BOP spokesperson, wrote in an email that the bureau is taking necessary precautions against COVID-19.

Those measures include employees and visitors receiving a temperature check before entering a BOP facility. People who have a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher are denied access to the building. Inside prisons, staff stay at the same posts as much as possible to minimize potential spread.

Other recent steps include inmate transfers from one facility to another decreasing by about 95% in recent months and suspending in-person social and legal visits in March. Although suspending in-person visitors is deemed a necessary restriction during COVID-19, incarcerated individuals have not seen their loved ones in at least five months, and the lack of socialization can result in mental health challenges.

“Humans need other human contact,” Malcoe said. “They need contact with their friends and families.”

Attorneys cannot meet their clients in person, making communication more difficult. (The McMillans did not hire an attorney to work on Ryan’s case, partially because his release date is close and they feared negative consequences for him if they tried to have him released through the legal system).

Under the BOP, new inmates are tested for COVID-19. Someone who is asymptomatic and tests negative is placed in quarantine for at least 14 days and must test negative for coronavirus again before being admitted to a prison’s general population. The same process applies to someone departing a BOP institution.

A prisoner is administered a COVID-19 test if symptomatic. Showing symptoms or receiving a positive COVID-19 test results in being placed in isolation until cleared by facility medical staff, and contact tracing occurs after a positive test.

An inmate requiring additional medical care is transferred to a local hospital or a prison’s hospital unit. (According to Long, FCI Oxford has 14 full-time medical employees). However, Malcoe noted that many prisons are in less populated areas with limited medical resources to deal with infected patients, potentially making health care more difficult for incarcerated people and residents of those communities.

If BOP employees display symptoms or test positive, they are sent home and instructed to self-quarantine until fully recovered.

“While a prison setting is unique when addressing a pandemic, the care and treatment of an identified positive COVID-19 case is not,” Long wrote.

Despite these measures, prisons remain potential breeding grounds for COVID-19, something likely to continue unless significant decarceration occurs.

Sharon Dolovich, one of the JAMA study’s co-authors, is a professor of law at UCLA and director of the UCLA Law Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project. She said prisons are “tailor-made” for the spread of disease. 

“You have all these people who are high risk, you have the perfect petri dish for the spread of the virus, and that translates into a public health crisis that can only be responded to by removing people from the environment,” Dolovich said. “If we really cared to protect people inside, that’s what we would do.”

Another significant obstacle for the McMillans and general public involves a lack of transparency at prisons. COVID-19 health guidelines are in place, but it is difficult to make sure they are followed.

“We need accountability,” Malcoe said. “We need to know that the same exact standards that are going on in communities are happening inside prisons and jails, but we don’t.”

Eau Claire County Board Supervisor Kim Cronk is one of many people who wrote letters to the BOP advocating for Ryan McMillan’s early release. Cronk has kept in contact with McKenzie McMillan in recent months, supporting her and “letting me know that I’m not alone,” McMillan said.

To increase accountability, public health employees should make regular, unannounced visits to provide educational updates and check on protocols in correctional facilities, Cronk said.

Dolovich and Saloner, two of the co-authors of the study on coronavirus cases and deaths in prisons, believe a national reporting standard should exist for correctional facilities to document cases of COVID-19 and other conditions like heart disease and diabetes. That will provide a fuller picture of the health care situation at a given facility, something that has not occurred during the pandemic.

“To the extent that (prisons) are selectively undercounting or misreporting information, we just won’t know that from a study like this,” Saloner said. “It should make us realize that however bad it has seemed, it could get a lot worse.”

The BOP reiterated its protection of incarcerated people and employees.

“We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families and the communities we live and work in,” Long wrote. “It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities.”

‘He made me better’

That sentiment rings hollow for the McMillans, who have spent months unsuccessfully working to have Ryan McMillan sent to home confinement.

A probation officer virtually approved the McMillan house in St. Paul for home confinement, meaning the residence was safe for Ryan McMillan to return to if released early. Despite the approval, McMillan is scheduled to spend 180 days in a halfway house in Minnesota starting Sep. 25, where he will have limited in-person interaction with his wife and daughter.

Ryan could be transferred to home confinement sooner than 180 days, but that is not guaranteed. Many unanswered questions exist, and each passing day makes it more difficult for the McMillans to show patience and persistence.

The push for Ryan’s early release started in earnest after Barr’s memos, but McKenzie has always supported him. She visited Ryan when he was incarcerated at BOP facilities in Illinois and Kentucky and often drove three-plus hours to see him in Wisconsin before the pandemic.

She couldn’t wait to view his smile during those visits.

“It was always a special moment just to see him walk through the door, seeing that he’s healthy and breathing and OK,” McKenzie McMillan said.

As part of his commitment to reintegrate into society, Ryan and McKenzie made a release plan they have presented to judges and BOP officials. The plan includes taking college courses this fall, avoiding “negative influences and past peers,” obtaining a new driver’s license and contacting employers about potential jobs.

Ryan has been incarcerated a few times, including as a result of a 2008 felony conviction for selling narcotics. During the past several years in federal prison, he completed multiple manufacturing certifications and about a dozen classes, including cabinet making, business education, parenting and poetry.

Ryan recently wrote a letter to a college coordinator atoning for his mistakes and describing the importance of education.

“Throughout my journey I have realized that I was a product of my own poor choices which led me here,” he wrote in part. “I chose to equip myself with an education, which I know is pertinent to being successful, not only to myself but my family as a whole. I chose to put forth the same due diligence and same fortitude that I did in doing things wrong into doing what is right. Education in itself has released me from the manacles and locks of my old thinking.”

Ryan, who turned 31 in July, has three sons from a previous relationship and one daughter with McKenzie, 9-year-old Nevaeh.

They married in 2015, and McKenzie is open about being wedded to a convicted felon.

“I’m not ashamed of him,” she said.

McKenzie said her husband has matured in recent years thanks to his inner drive and family support.

“This incarceration woke him up to what his children have grown up in these last years, and he’s missed out on that,” McKenzie McMillan said.

She said Ryan is charismatic, thoughtful and generous; he often provides additional food to people in prison. An excellent motivator and listener, Ryan can inspire others.

“I could go on for days about who Ryan is, none of which would include the poor decisions that he has made in the past because that is not the man I know and I love,” McKenzie McMillan wrote in an email. “He made me better. He made me think about things differently. He’s taught me a lot.”

Racial disparities

McKenzie explained to their daughter why Ryan was incarcerated. Nevaeh occasionally joined her during in-person visits to see Ryan, and father and daughter often write letters to one another.

“She is definitely aware of what is going on,” McKenzie McMillan said. “As parents of color, we have to expose our children to things very early on. As we talk about the George Floyd incident and police brutality, those conversations start very early.”

McKenzie mentioned racial inequities in many letters supporting Ryan’s early release.

“I would definitely argue that the criminal justice system is the cause for the breakdown of many aspects of our society, because so many of our Black and brown men, women and children are locked up, which takes away resources from families and communities,” McKenzie McMillan said.

Nationally, Black people made up 12% of the country’s population but 33% of its incarcerated population in 2018. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, in 2017 Black people constituted 7% of Wisconsin residents but 41% of its prison population. In Eau Claire County, Black people are 1.2% of the population but 19.8% of the people in the county jail as of Aug. 22.

In addition to racial inequities, the prison system can lead to incarcerated individuals being considered less than a person.

“If someone treated a dog in the way that they treat humans locked in our facilities, the response would be a huge outcry, but why is that not the same for people?” McKenzie McMillan said.

Ryan McMillan has a strong home support system to return to, yet his wife worries what will happen to him after being in near-isolation for several months.

“For anyone that’s coming out of a jail, there’s a level of trauma and PTSD,” McKenzie McMillan said.

Jason Sole knows firsthand about the trauma prisons inflict. He spent a total of more than four years incarcerated for drug and firearm charges before returning to school and becoming a professor.

“Prisons are terrible,” Sole said. “I didn’t need to be in a cage 23 hours per day. That ain’t what made me successful.”

Activists like Sole, who connected Cronk with the McMillans, have long argued that individuals like Ryan McMillan shouldn’t have to spend as much time behind bars.

“We didn’t need a pandemic to understand that some people can come out right now,” said Sole, a criminal justice professor at Hamline College in St. Paul and former president of the Minneapolis NAACP.

Sole corresponds with a few dozen imprisoned people, including Ryan McMillan, who said COVID-19 has restricted their daily lives.

As of April 1, the BOP said all institutions were on “enhanced modified operations.”

“This action was taken as a means to further mitigate exposure and spread of COVID-19 at the facility,” an FCI Oxford spokesperson wrote in an email. “Enhanced modified operations are not a lockdown, but rather a means to minimize inmate movement, to minimize congregate gathering and maximize social distancing among the inmate population.”

This summer, with incarcerated people confined to small cells in sweltering temperatures, COVID-19 has caused additional dehumanization.

“It’s more isolation in a cage,” Sole said. “When you’re in a cage, that’s suffocating. … It’s comparable to hell.”

Carlson, the ACLU regional organizer, agreed.

“We saw how the (Wisconsin) ‘safer at home’ order drove free civilians to the brink of madness; just think if the populace had to endure what prisoners are now going through,” Carlson wrote in an email.

Waiting to return home

Ryan McMillan continues to endure dehumanizing prison conditions while focusing on his post-release plans. In a recent letter to McKenzie, he wrote, “I just want to do right — in every capacity. Do right, not what’s easy. I am not afraid to work hard.”

In addition to applying for jobs and taking college courses once he is released, Ryan plans to mentor adolescents and help them learn from his mistakes.

Sole has written letters advocating for McMillan’s early release and plans to support him when Ryan returns to Minnesota.

“He’s just a prime candidate for somebody who’s ready to walk out the door and hit the ground running,” Sole said. “When he comes home, he’s going to be able to use his skill set and the knowledge he gained to be able to influence some 15-year-old who’s in the same predicament he was.”

McKenzie yearns to be a family again when her husband is released: meals at home, walks through a park and encouraging Nevaeh’s passions.

“It doesn’t have to be something huge; we’re just looking forward to the simple things,” she said.

In the meantime, despite health concerns and challenges with the criminal justice system, the McMillans will remain patient and persistent.