Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

With more than 80 cases and one death inside Michigan’s prison system, here is how the state is working to protect the incarcerated population who live in close quarters.

MICHIGAN — As the number of cases of coronavirus continues to rise in Michigan, the number of cases recorded in local lockups and jails is no exception. 

The news of the first death among Michigan prisons was announced last Wednesday.

Donafay Collins, a 63-year-old husband, father of four, longtime friend of Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and commander of the Division II jail on Clinton Street in Detroit, was the first prison worker to die as a result of exposure to the coronavirus. Collins had underlying medical conditions and had been hospitalized for two weeks prior to his passing.

A living arrangement where social distancing isn’t all that possible

Many inmates have tested positive in Michigan jails. In these facilities, inmates shower and eat together, make calls alongside each other, mingle in yards and sleep feet away from the next person.

 According to the most recent update from Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz, 80 cases among incarcerated Michiganders have been reported as of Monday morning, along with 14 MDOC staffers.

The tally includes one person who has since paroled and another who has been transferred from a local hospital to the Duane L. Waters Health Center, a 112 inpatient bed hospital located within the Michigan State Prison in Jackson, according to a post from the MDOC on Medium.com that is being updated throughout the crisis.

Current hotspots include Parnall, which has 29 cases as of March 31, and Macomb Correctional Facility, which has 27 cases.

The first case was in Kinross Correctional Facility, in the Upper Peninsula. 

“People are panicking, making makeshift masks,” a 21-year-old Kinross inmate told The Gander. “They are evacuating cubes of people. There are empty bunks and not a trace of someone living there. They got them out real fast and didn’t say anything.”

Steps state officials are taking to secure the population 

In order to keep the virus under control, the Department has been taking a variety of steps in recent weeks, according to MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz.

Those who are incarcerated are being closely checked for any signs of illness. The healthcare department is alerted to anyone who has symptoms and needs to be seen by healthcare staff to see whether they meet the criteria for a test.

“We have secured testing kits at all our facilities now,” Gautz said.

If the county health department agrees someone should be tested, tests are administered and typically come back within 48 hours.

“We isolate them and get them their tests,” Gautz added. “If any prisoner comes in close contact with them, we put those prisoners in quarantine pending the outcome of a test.

“Most times there has been a return of those prisoners back to their housing units, that’s how we handle that part right now.”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, MDOC has suspended all prisoner visitations and has increased the frequency and thoroughness of the cleaning of its facilities.

More soap is being provided to inmates, and a total of 1,500 posters with CDC hygiene guidelines have been printed out and posted as well according to Gautz. Communications are carried out each day to inform on daily news updates as well. The screening process for incarcerated Michiganders includes taking the temperature of staff who are not allowed in facilities if they register over 100.4 degrees.

Those who do test positive are “being held in different places” according to Gautz, with the majority of them spending time inside the Waters health center.

“It looks and feels like a mini hospital,” Gautz said about the facility. “There are negative pressure rooms where we can safely isolate and they can continue their treatments there.

“Other facilities have the ability to isolate prisoners (for quarantine) there, they may not be sick or have any serious symptoms but we isolate them and continue to monitor them throughout the day.”

Screenings are also given to incoming staff as well as temperature-taking, as Michigan’s correctional facilities continue to put the CDC’s guidelines into practice.

Gatherings in large and small groups are also being canceled, as are activities such as basketball where contact is an issue.

“We are utilizing and practicing social distancing whenever possible,” Gautz said. “We are in a prison so it’s not going to be possible 100 percent of the time.”

Gov. Whitmer steps in 

On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an Executive Order to offer more protection to vulnerable populations in Michigan’s county jails, local lockups and juvenile detention centers amid the ongoing pandemic.

The order details risk-reduction protocols that have been adopted by the MDOC, which Gautz confirmed to The Gander, that county jails and local lockups are strongly encouraged to adopt.

Among the protocols spelled out by Whitmer in the order include:

  • Screening everyone who enters or leaves a facility, including staff, offenders and vendors.
  • Restricting all visits, except for attorney-related visits.
  • Limiting off-site appointments except for urgent or emergency medical treatment.
  • Developing and implementing a protocol for incarcerated persons with COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Providing appropriate personal protection equipment to all staff as recommended by the CDC to the fullest extent possible.
  • Instituting stringent cleaning of all areas and surfaces on a regular and ongoing basis.
  • Ensuring access to adequate personal-hygiene supplies.
  • Practicing social distancing in all programs and classrooms.
  • Minimizing crowding.

The order will also temporarily suspend transfers into and from MDOC facilities until the protocols are adequately in place.

“The health and safety of all Michiganders remains our top priority during this public health crisis and that includes those incarcerated in our jails and juvenile detention centers,” Whitmer said. “It is challenging for inmates and employees to practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, and this Executive Order will put commonsense protocols into place to protect our jail and juvenile detention center populations.”

According to a report from ClickonDetroit, some inmates across the state (non-violent offenders only) are being considered for early release in order to alleviate the burden caused by the virus. Several local jails have been reducing their numbers of inmates in recent days and weeks.

“We’re doing everything we can within the confines of the law to release people who have served minimum sentences,” Gautz said. “By law they have to at least serve their minimum sentence. Out of 38,000, 28,000 have not served their minimum sentence yet.

“We only have about 5,000 we have any ability to release today if we wanted to,” he said.

Relieving elderly, vulnerable prisoners

Whitmer urged county jails to consider early release of older inmates, those with chronic conditions and people nearing their release date, all to reduce the spread of the virus.

In Macomb County, inmates being considered could see their time reduced, bonds reduced, or be released on a tether. As of Tuesday 200 inmates had been released in roughly the last month in the county, down to 675 from 875.

In Oakland County, the population of incarcerated Michiganders was 1,079 as of Tuesday. Three weeks ago it had 1,262 inmates.

In Wayne County, 243 inmates have been released since COVID-19 concerns began, and the jail averages about 30 releases per day. It had 1,138 inmates as of Tuesday compared to 1,656 in March.

The latest information is available at Michigan.gov/Coronavirus and CDC.gov/Coronavirus.