The incarcerated are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. Michigan is trying to keep them, prison staff and their communities safe through rigorous testing.
LANSING, MI — Prisons are places where people are often in confined indoor spaces and keeping social distance is a challenge, which makes them tinderboxes during a global pandemic.
As such, Michigan has been rigorously testing the incarcerated.
“We were the second state in the country to test every prisoner under its care and we continue to do testing every day on prisoners with symptoms, prisoners who need to transfer, go to the doctor or leave the facility for any reason,” Chris Gautz, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections, told The ‘Gander. “We also go back in and do multiple rounds of mass prisoner testing and offer free on-site staff testing whenever we see small increases in positive cases among prisoners or staff.”
The incarcerated make up 3% of all of the testing that’s been done in Michigan, Gautz said. Some inmates have been tested multiple times, even before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Aug. 15 executive order requiring inmates to be tested when entering, exiting or transferring between MDOC facilities. And Gov. Whitmer required jails mirror MDOC protocols before transferring inmates to state prisons.
Those MDOC protocols have been effective, according to Gautz. As of Tuesday, MDOC reported 801 cases of around 35,000 inmates. Active cases have spiked considerably over the last two weeks, but prior to that cases had been trending downward, Gautz said, and the rigorous testing protocols have helped prevent the spike from worsening.
“Our protocols and procedures for quickly identifying positive cases, isolating them and their close contacts, limiting prisoner transfers and suspending visitors from coming in, have all helped greatly in reducing the spread,” said Gautz.
Though it has helped prevent spread of the virus, suspending visitations has a major impact on the wellbeing of the incarcerated. The National Institute of Corrections found that visitation reduced the likelihood of reincarceration in the future by 13% after any kind of visit at all, and frequent and recent visits had more dramatic effects on recidivism.
Aware of the importance of visitation, MDOC is trying to find other solutions during the pandemic.
“We are working on piloting video visitation in the coming months and think that will be a great way to allow more family connections aside from just phone calls, letters and emails,” Gautz said. “It will not replace in-person visitation, but offer another option to families right now as we are still a ways off from getting back to in-person visiting.”
Testing the incarcerated isn’t just important to preventing the coronavirus from spreading among their population either, but for preventing spread in the communities jails and prisons are located near.
“Testing is at the very center of any strategy to keep prison and jail populations safe. By reducing the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, we protect corrections officers and their families, incarcerated people, and the whole community,” said Gov. Whitmer in a statement. “The Michigan Department of Corrections has been a leader for states across the country in COVID-19 response. We must continue that work to save lives, slow the spread of COVID-19, and ensure the protection of everyone who steps foot in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers. By expanding protections for Michigan’s vulnerable populations, we can slow the spread of the virus and save lives.”
As of Tuesday, 446 staff members at MDOC have tested positive for the coronavirus, and three have died. And unlike the incarcerated, those staff members carried the virus out of the prison, into communities. Preventing spread among prison populations protects those communities.
Gov. Whitmer’s orders also strongly encourage juvenile detention centers to implement risk reduction protocols as well, and to eliminate any form of juvenile detention or residential facility placement for kids unless a determination is made that a juvenile is a substantial and immediate safety risk to others.