Incarcerated individuals face extra risks during COVID-19 pandemic

Tuesday, March 24, 2020 - 9:22pm

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Design by Cara Jhang

While many Americans are following the urging of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to practice social distancing due to the COVID-19 outbreak, those in prisons are often unable to comply with this recommendation.

Nora Krinitsky, interim director of the Prison Creative Arts Project and director of the University of Michigan Carceral State Project, said one of the reasons the risk of contracting COVID-19 is so great for incarcerated individuals is due to their close quarters. Krinitsky cited an example of overcrowding in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, which is the only women’s correctional facility in the state of Michigan. The facility currently houses more than 2,200 women but was built to house a capacity of only 1,100 inmates.

“If people are within proximity with one another and have the virus, the spread of it goes up exponentially,” Krinitsky said. “That is what people inside are facing because they cannot successfully socially distance (from) one another. So that means that we could see people become infected and ill, potentially almost wholesale, within a prison very quickly, meaning in a number of days.”

Krinitsky said many people develop underlying conditions while incarcerated due to the stressful environment and commonly inadequate health care. These conditions have been cited by the CDC to increase one’s chance of contracting the virus and could make fighting it off much more difficult.

“Healthcare in prisons is sometimes difficult to access and sometimes non-existent,” Krinitsky said. “It’s already the case that people who are inside or people who come home from prison often have really acute medical conditions or chronic conditions that they’re dealing with that have either been caused by their incarceration or exacerbated by their incarceration.”

Chris Gautz, Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson, said the MDC is taking drastic precautions to reduce the likelihood of the spread of the virus inside their facilities. Gautz spoke of precautions for social distancing, such as reducing General Educational Development and substance abuse class sizes and reducing the number of inmates in the dining hall during meal times. As of March 30, 80 currently incarcerated people have tested positive in Michigan.

“We are reducing the class sizes that we have for different GED classes, substance abuse, other types of cognitive programming that we do every day,” Gautz said. “Typically less than 10 individuals in those classes, and we’re having them sit further apart while they’re in the class. We’re doing the same thing for our chow hall so when they go out to eat meals, instead of having an entire housing unit go out to eat together, which could be anywhere from 80 to 160 people at a time, we’re doing half of that amount.”

In addition to these social distancing practices, anyone entering the prison is screened with a questionnaire upon entrance. This screening has questions about recent travel, exposure to anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 or shown symptoms and whether they themselves are experiencing any symptoms. Each individual has their temperature checked and, if normal, is then allowed into the facility for work.

On March 23, a person in custody of the MDOC was confirmed to have contracted the virus; this was the first instance of COVID-19 of a currently incarcerated person in MI. Gautz said the state’s protocol for what will be done if an incarcerated person tests positive for COVID-19 includes transferring them to Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, a state-run medical facility for inmates.

“First of all, obviously isolation, putting a mask on that individual, and then making sure that staff who are going to be dealing with that individual also have the proper personal protective equipment,” Gautz said. “Then we would make a determination on whether or not we could continue to house them in isolation at their facility, or if we would transport them in an MDOC ambulance to a health center in Jackson … We would only make that type of movement if the person was far away from Jackson.”

On Monday, a person in custody of the MDOC was confirmed to have contracted the virus. Gautz said an incarcerated male previously housed at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Chippewa County was sent to a local hospital on March 11. He was treated for an underlying medical condition that was not COVID-19. Medical staff monitored him for a week and did not feel that he needed to be tested for the novel coronavirus.

Gautz said the man was transferred on March 17 to a different hospital in the Northern Lower Michigan region, where he was placed on a floor where they were treating community members suspected of having the virus. Gautz said the MDOC is unsure of how the individual contracted the virus, but they did not send him to the hospital with any symptoms of COVID-19.

“We can’t say that he definitely got it at that hospital, but all we know was that we didn’t send him to the hospital because we thought he had symptoms,” Gautz said. “He was at the hospital and he was around other people who were under suspicion of having it and then he tested positive.”

Gautz said the man has been at the same hospital since March 17 and will be transferred to the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center as soon as hospital officials deem him stable. He will be put into an isolation chamber with a negative pressure system to limit any spread of the virus to other individuals working and being housed at this facility. Gautz said other precautions such as masks and gowns are ready at the location.

Krinitsky said releasing older people from prisons would alleviate a great deal of the population at risk, but that greater acts must be made to protect prisoners inside the facilities.

“The first step would be to release people from prison,” Krinitsky said. “That is the only step that would be truly effective in stopping the spread of the virus and protecting people's health. The American Friends Service Committee circulated a letter in which they lay out very clearly why this is an important step to take, to release elderly prisoners and people who are medically vulnerable.”

Despite what has been done so far by the MDOC, Krinitsky said she feels more must be accomplished to salvage people’s health.

“The truth is, we know on the outside (of prison) that all people, regardless of your age or medical status, are vulnerable,” Krinitsky said. “So truly I know the MDOC has taken the steps of going into quarantine and doing special cleaning of prisons, but these are really half-measures.”

Katharine Boasberg, PCAP member and LSA sophomore, shared her feelings on the isolation techniques performed inside correctional facilities. She discussed problems that could result from using isolation wards for medical reasons, due to their normal usage as a punitive measure. 

“Solitary confinement and isolation has historically been used as a tactic to further distort and destroy the psyche of many people who are incarcerated,” Boasberg said. “Having government-mandated isolation already worsens the psyche of being physically isolated (from society, and this) couples with the fear that on the inside, you’re incapable of socially isolating because you’re in such an intense group environment.” 

Krinitsky said isolation can be destructive in a normal situation, current crisis climate aside. She said vulnerability in prisons is not highly rewarded, so individuals may be hesitant to share their symptoms with staff.

“In terms of people reporting their illnesses, trust and vulnerability in prisons is already incredibly precarious,” Krinitsky said. “Historically, there’s not really a lot of trust inside to know that if you report your illness, you’ll be taken care of. Also, the only option for someone to be isolated inside is to put them in a segregation unit, which is almost always taken as a punitive measure and we all know all of the destructive things that happen to someone when they’re segregated.”

Formerly incarcerated bail disruptor Asia Johnson shared a similar response to the isolation of suspected carriers or incarcerated people who have tested positive for the virus. Johnson said though medically necessary, solitary is not always beneficial to the patient. 

Johnson also said the inequities of the healthcare system that she witnessed while in state custody will make many people unwilling to report symptoms of the virus.

“Nobody wants to be in solitary confinement or placed in a room by themselves,” Johnson said. “You don’t know if you’re receiving adequate health care and sometimes you don’t even know what’s wrong until it’s too late. This will definitely stop people from seeking treatment and getting the proper medication that they need, because (the MDOC) just doesn’t know what they’re doing inside.

Johnson said the only outbreak she remembers while incarcerated was a scabies outbreak at Women’s Huron Valley. She said while inside her housing unit, an officer for her unit lost the key to open the building.

“Even with a little outbreak, even though scabies isn’t little, they had no idea what they were doing,” Johnson said. “I remember one time an officer lost their keys and I just remembered the uncertainty and the anxiety of not knowing when we were going to be let out. This (situation) is on another level, and the anxiety that the women and the men in the other prisons must be experiencing is something that I can't even imagine having to deal with.”

Krinitsky said she hopes people will appreciate the experience of individuals who are incarcerated. 

“In my search for silver linings, one small consolation in this moment is that as we all experience isolation that is far less acute than the isolation people experience in prisons, that people might be able to develop their empathy for people who are inside,” Krinitsky said.

Since Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility has now confirmed seven positive cases of COVID-19 within their prisoner population, Johnson said her heart goes out to the friends she left at the facility.

Despite not entirely knowing how to handle the pandemic, Johnson said she wished the MDOC would treat the people inside right now with a level of empathy.

“I wish that they would care about each man and woman inside as if they were a human being and not just a number, a crime or a person that doesn't deserve to have their health intact,” Johnson shared. “I just want them to treat them as if they were their loved ones. What would you do if this was your sister inside? Or your daughter? Your mother? How would you go about handling the pandemic?”

Daily Staff Reporter Jenna Siteman can be reached at jsiteman@umich.edu