COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons across state spark distrust in Michigan Department of Corrections

Thursday, November 19, 2020 - 3:58pm

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Illustration by Shannon Stocking

With COVID-19 outbreaks across the state, Michigan prisons have seen sharp rises in incarcerated people testing positive since the pandemic began in March.

According to the Marshall Project, Michigan is fifth nationally in the number of total cases in prison systems, with 9,763 inmates testing positive since mass testing of inmates began in late April. There have been 75 deaths due to COVID-19 in Michigan prison systems as of Wednesday.

With close to 700 positive cases reported at Central Michigan Correctional Facility, family members of incarcerated people protested Michigan Department of Corrections’s handling of the pandemic by organizing a car caravan on Sunday.

Protest organizer Dylan Flucht, whose uncle is in Central Michigan Correctional Facility, said overcrowding of the correctional facilities across the state made controlling COVID-19 transmission a challenge to begin with. 

“For years now, the Michigan Prison system is already at double capacity, so it’s impossible to social distance when something like this (COVID-19) hits,” Flucht said. “As soon as the pandemic hit, the governor and the state legislature could have taken efforts to shrink the prison population such as reinstating ‘good time’, and let people out who had been on their best behavior.”

In addition to the systemic issues, Flucht believes the outbreak was caused by the negligence of the Michigan Department of Corrections, which failed to effectively separate infected inmates.

“It’s really simple, the MDOC just lies,” Flucht said. “This (COVID-19) might take a lot of people by surprise in March, but it’s November now and MDOC has had months to do something about it.”

Matt Tjapkes, president of Humanity for Prisoners, an organization that supports those serving time and their families, said about a dozen facilities across the state are currently in outbreak status. Tjapkes said the MDOC had not learned from their failure to prevent outbreaks at Macomb and Lakeland Correctional facilities and was still transporting inmates between facilities.

“It doesn’t feel like there has been any adjustment to the response plan,” Tjapkes said. “The movement of prisoners from facility to facility but even within the facility just raises everybody’s anxiety. A lot of the inmates have been asking for a lockdown until they identify the hotspots and then try and deal with those as opposed to grouping and hurting everybody and moving them around.” 

MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said MDOC is enforcing the same protocol across facilities to deal with outbreaks. Gautz said the prison facilities across the state are in compliance with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ order to conduct mandatory weekly testing for MDOC staff in facilities where there is at least one confirmed case of the virus. In addition, they are also testing inmates.

“The protocol we follow is the same,” Gautz said. “We designate five or six housing units for just positive prisoners. Prisoners who are negative stay in separate units and those who are in close contact or waiting to be tested are not in contact with these groups. Staff in contact with positive prisoners are in full PPE.”

Gautz said only employees have mandatory testing, but every incarcerated person is tested if a staff member at their facility tests positive. 

Tjapkes said the current strategy is unfair to incarcerated people, specifically those who are older than 50 or have preexisting conditions.

“This is a matter of life or death in a lot of situations,” Tjapkes said. “Especially if someone’s parole eligible knows that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, they’re just trying to serve their time and serve their sentence, and then go on back to life. They really feel like this could be a death sentence.”

Both advocates and unions alike have sounded the alarm on MDOC’s plan, especially in the arrangements for incarcerated people versus facility workers. In August, Michigan Correction Organization, the 6000-member union for Michigan prison guards, passed a vote of no-confidence in Heidi Washington, the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections. The union asked for her to be removed from her position due to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic among other issues.

An inmate at Kinross Correctional Facility, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said the problem of controlling the virus does not lie with the Department of Corrections staff, but with the MDOC administration.

“They'll (MDOC) tell you that you know we're all just disgruntled people and we always complain but that’s not true,” he said. “I think the staff are doing an excellent job and taking up the flack for a lot of different things. The problem is above them, with the administrations and definitely in Lansing with Heidi Washington and her employees. I just feel like they have no earthly idea of what is going on in here and they don't care.”

Amy Wallace, whose husband has been in the Upper Peninsula’s Kinross Correctional Facility for four years, is wary of the culture at MDOC. As a visitor, she said she noticed a culture of treating officers and employees. Wallace said MDOC claims to be following certain safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but she does not believe that to be the case. 

 “I mean who’s asking inmates what’s going on? Or their loved ones? Nobody,” Wallace said. “They say that they’re using extra cleaning supplies or keeping prisoners socially distant or not doing transfers, but I don’t think that’s accurate at all.”

Joseph Fowler, an inmate at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility wrote in a message to The Michigan Daily that MDOC’s response to outbreaks has been “sheer panic.” He called for the administration to ensure all staff are rapid-tested and given immediate results so that the virus does not enter the facility through employees. 

“We would not ever get sick if they were tested properly,” Fowler said. “It is just not possible for us to be able to social distance so once one person gets it almost all of us do.”

Fowler compared his situation in prison and the administration’s failure to prevent the spread of the virus to a death sentence.

“We deserve a fair shot at life just like the next person,” Fowler said. “Not all of us have life sentences and none of us were sentenced to death, but with the pandemic fastly growing inside these fences we are quickly getting resentenced to death.”

 

Daily Staff Reporter Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at varshakv@umich.edu. 


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