“I was brushing my teeth at around 12:30 last night and a guy woke up from sleeping and just forgot (his mask) on his way to the bathroom,” Zachary Zabavski, inmate at Parnall Correctional Facility said. “It’s not our routine, so he just forgot. Then when an officer saw him, they cuffed him and took him to the hole (isolation unit)”
Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Mich. has reported the highest number of positive cases so far of any correctional facility in the state, with 163 reported positive COVID-19 patients out of 186 total inmates tested. Inmates at Parnall, an all male prison, told The Daily they fear for their health and wellbeing as this virus continues to spread.
There have been five deaths due to the virus so far. At Lakeland Correctional Facility, a geriatric correctional center in Branch County, there have been six deaths.
The spread of the virus is enhanced by the open layout of Parnall’s housing facilities, according to Zabavski, who is currently incarcerated at Parnall.
Zabavski said inmates are housed in barrack-like units at Parnall with about 400 men per unit. There are two men per each cube-like area, but the layout is open, with walls only going about 10 feet up and the ceiling being approximately 20 feet tall, he said.
Zabavski said morale is deteriorating each day as more and more men experience symptoms related to the virus, adding that the staff does not have adequate personal protective equipment and neither do those currently incarcerated there.
He said each person housed at Parnall was first provided with three masks, which are to be worn at all times and to be washed every 6 hours at minimum.
Zabavski said the masks are poorly constructed, causing discomfort to the men inside and to guards.
“The first two masks had almost like a rubber band with a thin coating on it,” Zabavski said. “Now, they’re pretty much broken so we have one mask and everybody is getting sores from wearing them 24/7.”
He said since the situation feels so perilous and no one knows what’s going on, a sort of bonding has taken place.
“It's almost actually helping relationships between correctional officers and inmates,” Zabavski said. “They know that it’s kind of inhumane. It’s caused so much extra stress to the average prisoner and it’s almost like cruel and unusual punishment. That’s how a lot of us feel because (there’s) no escaping it no matter what.”
Zabavski has been tasked with cleaning the bathrooms. He said though some bleach has been provided to the facility, there’s often not enough for his job.
“I would say out of the seven days I clean, five days I won’t have any bleach to clean with because they only give us two bottles to share for the whole unit,” Zabavski said. “They refill multiple times a day but by the time it gets to actually doing (it), there’s almost never any left. It’s not really sanitary.”
Chris Gautz, Michigan Department of Corrections public information officer, acknowledged that this may indeed be the reality for many correctional facilities due to bleach being a particularly strong chemical. He noted that many people being housed in correctional facilities have either a strong preference for the use of bleach or a dislike of the substance, due to the strong scent it carries.
“If they're not using bleach though,” Gautz said, “they also have a variety of other disinfectants and sprays that the porters use. So just because they're not using bleach doesn't mean that the bathrooms of the unit aren’t getting clean, they’re just using the other disinfectants that are typically used.
At Michigan correctional facilities, any individual tested for COVID-19 is placed into isolation until the test comes back. The individuals who were housed with that patient are also isolated in their unit for the time in between the testing and the result. This can mean that up to 400 men must isolate while awaiting results for someone tested in their unit.
Zabavski said he estimates the vast majority of the men in his unit to be sick with COVID-19, but most are hiding their symptoms from correctional officers out of fear of this isolation.
Normally in prisons, isolation is used as a severe punitive measure that deprives the individual of privileges such as phone calls, emails through a monitored service called JPay, television, music and outdoor time. He said the men in Parnall fear that when they are already feeling so ill, isolation will only worsen their situation.
“No one wants to get packed up because if you get packed up, you get quarantined — you get no TV, no store, you get minimal access to communication,” Zabavski said. “No one really wants to do that unless they’re really sick.”
Though these times are unprecedented, Zabavski said even in more normal times,people inside do not always trust the medical care they will receive.
Gautz said going into isolation is necessary for others to socially distance from the individual who has contracted the virus.
“Once we identify that there is somebody that we want to test, we isolate them and place them in quarantine, pending the outcome of their test,” Gautz said. “We also then isolate all of the prisoners who would have had close, personal contact with the person being tested. We isolate those prisoners in groups amongst themselves.”
He also discussed that since this isolation is not being used as a punitive measure, regular privileges are being provided in this different environment.
“We also have taken great measures to make sure that prisoners who go to quarantine have access to communication, they’re able to call their families, they’re able to write home, they’re able to send electronic messages,” Gautz said. “Then prisoners who eventually move to either Carson City or to Cotton (Correctional Facility) as they’re recovering get to watch TV. The prisoners have a benefit fund (and) they very generously purchased 200 TVs so that the prisoners in these units would have the ability to watch TV.”
When a currently incarcerated person is approved for parole by the parole board, they must wait 28 days while their case is sent to the prosecutor that sentenced them, in order to give the prosecutor an opportunity to appeal their parole. Gautz said he is petitioning to remove this waiting period due to the outbreak inside the correctional center.
“In all cases where there is no registered victim, we’re asking the prosecutors if they would waive that time period so that we can just release those prisoners right away rather than have them sit there arbitrarily for 28 days,” Gautz said. “We’re finding creative ways in terms of seeking these waivers so we can get people out faster.”
Activists have addressed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in an open letter urging her to release currently incarcerated people who are more vulnerable to the virus. Natalie Holbrook, who is the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program, said they feel this is the only way to slow down the spread of the virus.
“We’ve been organizing for the governor to do something more than what the Department of Corrections is doing around COVID and prisons in Michigan,” Holbrook said. “(Whitmer) hasn’t done anything … we knew all along that it was going to spread really fast, that there is no such thing as social distancing for them. So I think that she’ll have blood on her hands for a long time.”
On Friday, Whitmer said there are no plans for early release of prisoners during the outbreak.
Public Policy junior Marissa Sable echoed this sentiment, saying this is a good time to set a new precedent for policies impacting incarcerated individuals.
“This system is already so broken,” Sable said. “We’re going through this unprecedented time where the world is on pause, I feel like that we can start to fix so many aspects of our society. Why not just enforce these policies taking these nonviolent offenders and saying they don’t belong in prison in the first place, not just during a pandemic?”
Though the MDOC is working throughout the week to attain a level of safety for currently incarcerated people, Zabavski said he has felt the level of anxiety inside Parnall increase each day. He said he is most concerned for those around him.
“The whole unit is one giant petri dish,” Zabavski said. “We’re not only worried about ourselves but on top of that worried about our family.”
Daily Staff Reporter Jenna Siteman can be reached at email@example.com.