Since April 2020, 146 people incarcerated in Michigan correctional facilities have passed away due to COVID-19 and related complications, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections. These people were housed in various facilities across Michigan, with nine of the people who passed away in 2020 and 2021 being from Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan’s upper peninsula.
As of Dec. 6, there have been a total of 27,904 total positive cases and 136 active cases of COVID-19 in correctional facilities across Michigan. In Kinross, there are currently 14 active cases.
In various messages to The Michigan Daily, four people incarcerated at the Kinross facility expressed concern about the measures that were being taken to protect people incarcerated from getting COVID-19. While there are guidelines put in place for MDOC, the sources reported that these guidelines are not being followed.
Chris Gautz, MDOC public information officer, spoke in a phone interview with The Daily about the difficulties of ensuring safety within prisons. Gautz said that he, along with other staff, have been doing their best to follow the guidelines put in place for the MDOC and ensure safety for everyone who is currently incarcerated and employed in a facility.
“Working in a prison is already difficult, but when you add a pandemic on top of that, that certainly adds complexity,” Gautz said. “But our staff have really done an amazing job just trying to keep themselves safe, keeping the prisoners safe, making sure that the prisoners are taking it seriously wearing their masks, trying to convince them to get vaccinated to be tested.”
Tests and quarantining
Like all MDOC facilities, Kinross is required to quarantine all people who test positive for COVID-19 for 14 days and notify all staff and other inmates who came in contact with the individual about the exposure. In addition, when currently incarcerated people are set to be released on parole, discharged or moved out of the facility in any other capacity, they must be tested and cannot move until the results of the test come back. This includes people being transferred between facilities.
Despite these strict rules, people who are currently incarcerated in Kinross have reported dissatisfaction with the testing process in the facility, primarily including the use of rapid tests.
Jerry Wallace, who is currently incarcerated in Kinross, said he is not satisfied with the one rapid test given to people upon arrival.
“COVID-19 has a fourteen day incubation period,” Wallace wrote in a message to The Daily. “It wasn’t until after the first or second set of transfers that the administration here began to house the newly arrived offenders in g-unit (a particular unit). However, they still allowed those new arrivals to eat in the chow hall and mingle socially in the yard.”
The facility has also received criticism from people currently incarcerated for not following protocol on quarantining periods when people test positive or are transferred into the facility.
Wallace said people moving between facilities are not quarantined, which is dangerous for other inmates, especially with the incubation period between exposure to COVID-19 and testing positive for it.
“Inmates are being transferred to and from the prison without proper quarantine measures,” Wallace wrote. “They are released into the general population the very same day they arrive. But, the day before the prisoner leaves their last facility, they are swabbed for COVID (with the instant test). The problem is it can take up to 10 to 14 days for the illness to manifest. By then, the prisoner has long been around others in the general population at the new facility.”
Justin Gibson, who is incarcerated in Kinross, reiterated Wallace’s criticisms in a message to The Daily. He said he is not satisfied with the current transfer process.
“There are no ‘quarantine’ steps prior to transfers,” Gibson wrote. “The process is an instant test that is administered the day before the transfer. No one is isolated or quarantined. When they arrive at this facility they are sent to what is being called the ‘quarantine’ unit. Although this unit still is on yard with another unit, they go to the chow hall with other units. It is ‘quarantine’ by name, not by use.”
Wallace said that almost 100 people transferred to Kinross in the span of thirty days in November. These people were given a rapid test and were not quarantined when arriving at Kinross, Wallace said.
“When those prisoners arrived, they were absorbed directly into the housing units without being quarantined from the general population for a period of time because, according to the Kinross administration, ‘all of them were tested before they got on the bus,’” Wallace wrote. “It is very likely that there could be prisoners from either of those facilities who were carriers of the delta variant. And just because the Michigan Department of Corrections claims to have tested those men doesn’t mean the virus wasn’t present as we do not know the error rate of the covid rapid tests being used.”
Another Kinross inmate, who requested to remain anonymous, said that multiple transfers happen each week, even when COVID-19 cases are on the rise, in his message to The Daily.
“These transfers happen, two to three times a week, with an average of about 12 to 16 people,” the inmate wrote. “Today (11/16/2021), 29 new people just arrived from RGC (Jackson Quarantine). This has been going on for weeks with about 200 prisoner moves…the prisoners have literally arrived from prisons all over the state.”
Gautz said the number of transfers is currently limited and has been limited as a result of the pandemic. He added that there have not generally been transfers unless deemed necessary due to a safety or health concern.
“There are very few transfers that are happening right now — really only emergent cases … but general transfers are really not happening and really haven’t happened much at all during the pandemic,” Gautz said. “We really tried to keep everyone where they were to the extent that we could, and prisoners are tested before they go and when they get there.”
The anonymous source also said that in July 2020, eight incarcerated people were transferred to Kinross after a COVID-19 outbreak in their previous facility. Those eight individuals tested positive themselves prior to transferring into Kinross and had not been quarantined prior to the transfer, the source said.
“Kinross was going to just let the new prisoners out into the general population until we sent prisoner representatives to talk to the administration and at the very least have the 8 new prisoners quarantined,” the source wrote. “The prisoners were only quarantined for six days and each one was then put into one of the eight units at Kinross. After that, COVID-19 spread like a wildfire and pretty soon almost the entire prison inmate population became sick with COVID-19.”
People incarcerated at Kinross are supplied with single-ply cloth masks, a measure that some consider being inadequate in the protection they provide. Wallace said he has been denied access to N95 masks by Kinross administrators.
“I have written to healthcare twice to ask if I could please have an N95 mask,” Wallace wrote. “And was told both times that those are not available for prisoners.”
James Matthews, who is also incarcerated at Kinross, said he agrees with Wallace that the personal protective equipment offered by the administration has not provided as much protection as possible. He said the masks distributed in the facility are not adequate.
“They gave us some of those little blue masks like a year ago, seven, eight months ago,” Wallace said. “We do have those, but I don’t think that’s adequate.”
According to the anonymous source in Kinross, imperfect masking practices by the facility’s staff worsen the COVID-19 conditions in the facility. The source said correctional officers routinely bypass masking requirements by exploiting loopholes in the rules that allow them to remain unmasked if they are eating or drinking.
“They sit, or walk around with a cup of coffee or some other beverage all shift,” the source wrote. “And they’re the ones that are bringing (COVID-19) in.”
Gautz said there have not been issues with making sure people keep their masks on. He also said that the facilities provide N95 masks to those undergoing medical procedures.
“Most people don’t want to get sick, so they keep it on,” Gautz said. “Since the very beginning, we’ve required masks of all of our employees and of all of the prisoners. We provided free masks, cloth masks, and that’s what the CDC guidance says. Cloth masks are perfectly acceptable. If they were to get a medical procedure or they’re going to be in a clinic, then an N95 can be provided.”
Social distancing is reported by inmates at Kinross as being completely nonexistent within the facility, despite the practice being one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s top recommendations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Wallace wrote that the cells at Kinross, where the inmates spend most of their time, are much too small to accommodate social distancing. He characterized the cells as “pole barn settings.”
“When I’m laying on my bunk, my head is never more than three and a half to four feet away from one of these other guys,” Wallace wrote.
This was corroborated by Matthews, who described similarly tight-packed conditions in the cells.
“In my room, I’m on a bunk,” Matthews said. “Two feet above me is the guy next to me. I can literally put my arm out and touch the foot of their bed … It’s like eight people in a 12 by 16 foot area.”
The two also said social distancing remains impossible even outside the cells. The bathrooms, chow halls and public facilities, like microwaves and store kiosks, are all reported as being too densely populated.
“We are constantly forced to be in close proximity to another offender,” Wallace wrote. “This overcrowding only serves to guarantee that whenever the MDOC does transfer in (COVID-19) positive offenders, there is NO WAY for us to prevent ourselves from becoming infected.”
The anonymous source from Kinross said the facility used to require inmates to sit side by side in the chow hall. According to him, the system was only changed to staggered seating, which he said is still tightly packed, after he disobeyed the original rule.
“There are no ‘real’ social distancing protocols in place,” he said.
Gautz said that the decrease in prison populations over recent months has enabled Kinross to spread people out more and allow for more social distancing in the facility.
“Certainly social distancing can be an issue, but we certainly practice it as best we can … there are stickers on the floor, cones that say ‘six feet apart’,” Gautz. “We have those all in place to keep people spaced out. And then certainly our prison population has declined by more than 5000 or so since the pandemic, so we have a lot more space … as our population has thinned out, we’ve been able to space people out a little bit more to give them a little bit more space, and so that’s really helped as well.”
Daily Staff Reporters Eli Friedman and Kate Weiland can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.