In the year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan, 63% of Michigan’s prison population has tested positive for the virus and 139 people have died. In total, more than 25,900 incarcerated people and 3,800 corrections staff have tested positive. Incarcerated people are routinely exposed to illness and unable to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance in cramped, shared spaces. Sanitation and ventilation are inadequate, and quarantine practices have been lackadaisical. Additionally, visitation to all Michigan prisons has been suspended since March 13, 2020.
Advocates have been urging the Michigan Department of Corrections to take meaningful action to contain the virus since the pandemic began. A white paper published last summer by researchers from the American Friends Service Committee and the University of Michigan, of which I was a co-author, detailed the dire conditions. Nearly 300 pages of prisoner letters showed example after example of horrifying conditions of facilities compromising their safety day to day.
A year later, not much has changed. Cases surged again in November, and Michigan now ranks first in the nation in COVID-19 cases per 10,000 prisoners.
What was true then is still true today. MDOC’s response is inadequate, but in fact, no safe pandemic response is possible, given the existing unsafe conditions in Michigan’s prisons even before the pandemic. And due to their continued inaction, new outbreaks are still ongoing. Meanwhile, MDOC claims to be taking additional safety measures and denies responsibility for officer deaths. Letters from the inside, however, suggest that MDOC is more concerned with its public image than with the well-being of those in its custody.
Action could and should have been taken a year ago. As long as prisons are hotbeds of transmission, the whole state of Michigan remains at risk. The only response that truly supports public health is reducing our prison population and removing as many people as possible from this hazardous environment.
Masks and Cleaning Supplies
In prison, mask use is expected at all times, except while eating, sleeping or showering. According to the letters, many incarcerated people received only two masks, not three as MDOC claimed. Officers have written misconduct tickets aggressively for mask non-compliance while failing to wear the masks properly themselves. Masks have become one more tool for officers to wield power over prisoners and make incarceration even more punitive.
Additionally, according to MDOC, “cleaning products are available to clean commonly-used areas and phones before and after use” and “all prisoner areas and bathrooms have plentiful access to soap.” But at Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Mich., Jody Hill reported that no additional soap was available. Regarding bleach, “the officers just spray it a couple of times on one rag and give it to the porter. Then he uses the same rag to go around and wipe every single thing.” Toilet paper too was carefully rationed.
Social Distancing, Meals and Ventilation
In a two-person cell or an eight-person cube or a 160-bed pole barn (large buildings housing low-security prisoners in open dormitory-style bunks), the living quarters are so close that social distancing is impossible. While it is true that fewer people are allowed into the chow hall at one time, meals are rushed, served at odd hours and nutritionally inadequate. At many facilities, it appears that no one disinfects the dining area between uses.
Many prisoners report receiving half portions or even less. Vegetarians like juvenile lifer (a person sentenced to life without parole while still under 18) Yusef “Q” Qualls, have it even worse: “They make these bean patties using leftover veggies & sometimes leftover beans too. … They make them then stick them in the freezer until they need them, then then they reheat them & serve them to us… They are either soggy, or they are dust.” The resulting widespread hunger has also contributed to rising tensions.
Ventilation issues abound as well. In the Upper Peninsula’s overcrowded pole barns, summertime temperatures reached up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But MDOC directed Kinross Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Mich., to shut off all its fans, supposedly to prevent cross-contamination between quarantined and non-quarantined air.
At Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township, Mich., quarantined units were not allowed outdoors at all for over a month. The lack of fresh air and exercise compounded prisoners’ stress levels. At the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Mich., a 30-person brawl broke out in the yard over the use of a fan. Issues like these have no easy fixes: They are built into the very architecture of the prison.
Testing and Quarantine
MDOC has performed over 800,000 tests for COVID-19 and maintains an information repository on Medium showing coronavirus numbers by facility. But prison crowding and poor quarantine practices mean that all that testing has done little to curb the spread of the virus.
Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Mich., managed to avoid an outbreak until early April, when MDOC decided to transfer prisoners who had tested positive at several other facilities to a satellite unit there.
Within a week, several men fell ill. Within a month, over 600 people at Gus Harrison had tested positive. By now, out of 1,955 prisoners tested at Gus Harrison, 1,466, or 75%, have tested positive. After an officer died of COVID-19, the facility was investigated and ultimately fined for failing to adhere to safety measures.
And the numbers get even worse: at Chippewa, Kinross, Carson City Correctional Facility, Marquette Branch Prison, Michigan Reformatory, Muskegon Correctional Facility and Newberry Correctional Facility, over 80% of the incarcerated population has tested positive.
The lack of safe quarantine spaces results in inhumane conditions for those who test positive. At Women’s Huron Valley in Ypsilanti, Mich., prisoners who tested positive were placed into segregation, and in other places, they were quarantined in the field house. While in separation, they received no toilet paper, blankets or shower access. At Macomb, prisoners were transferred in and out of quarantine with little regard for their symptom status, leading to cross-contamination.
At 21 of Michigan’s prisons, over 100 staff have tested positive. But that doesn’t mean sick staff are staying home. Incarcerated people across the state have reported that staff were working while actively symptomatic. Likewise, incarcerated people with jobs like food preparation or sanitation have continued to work for 17.5 to 32.5 cents per hour while symptomatic, for fear of losing their job or being sent to isolation.
Medical Care and Visitation
Long before the pandemic, incarcerated people have had to deal with substandard medical care. Now, many are unwilling to admit feeling sick, while others die after repeated medical requests go ignored. People who are sick must pay a $5 copay (equivalent to $300 in free-world earnings at minimum wage) to see a nurse. They generally receive only Tylenol, so many don’t bother. MDOC is required to provide only a minimum standard of care and has a history of denying patients costly treatments.
No one in Michigan’s prisons has seen their family for a year. Programming has been canceled, including in-person educational programming and treatment programs required for parole. For a few months, prisoners were allowed two free, five-minute phone calls per week.
Now, incarcerated people receive two JPay stamps and some fee reductions, but this hardly compensates for the gaps left by the protracted lack of visitation or programming. This is one area where there has been some improvement: Video visits have been rolling out at some facilities since October, and on March 12, MDOC announced that modified in-person visitation will resume this Friday. While this is a step in the right direction, it does not negate the trauma of a year’s isolation from their loved ones.
Prisons are liabilities to public health at the best of times. Prior to the pandemic, Michigan has suspended visitation during outbreaks of influenza and scabies. In 2019, a group of women incarcerated at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility filed a federal lawsuit over a long-standing black mold infestation.
The introduction of COVID-19 into this already hazardous environment is a recipe for disaster. Vaccination, while necessary to control this particular outbreak, is not enough. The same conditions that have made COVID-19 so severe in correctional facilities will leave prisons equally vulnerable to the next public health crisis. None of this can be addressed while MDOC continues to evade responsibility for its bungled pandemic response.
So, what can be done?
First, immediately reduce the prison population through executive clemency. Overcrowded pole barns pose a particular risk. Reducing eight-person cubes to double occupancy would allow for a greater possibility of physical distancing. The governor should also issue an executive order requiring MDOC to calculate the statutory parole guidelines for anyone who has served at least 15 years of a life or long-term sentence. This would make more people eligible for a parole review, especially those who have already served many years. In January, the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office recommended several other ways to increase paroles and commutations.
Second, cease processing new people into such a high-risk environment. This moment is a prime opportunity for judges and prosecutors to seriously consider alternatives to incarceration. Similarly, reducing arrests for traffic tickets and other minor offenses will reduce jail cycling, a prime factor in community spread. Because unsafe conditions in prison facilitate community spread through corrections staff, they are a threat to public health in the free world, too.
Even a mass vaccination program in MDOC will be only a Band-Aid on the deeper problem we must face: that our prisons are inhumane, unsafe, cruel and a health risk to us all. The only long-term solution is one that reduces the size and scope of the carceral system and builds a safer and more just alternative.
Megan Wilson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Classical Studies and is a researcher with the Carceral State Project. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.