As coronavirus spreads in Michigan’s prisons, fear brews among families, officers

Anticipating the arrival of the coronavirus in Michigan’s prison system, Mark Chumar has had a bag packed should he need to drop everything in an emergency and drive from his home in Philadelphia to Ypsilanti, where his wife is incarcerated. 

Fears of how quickly COVID-19 could spread behind bars have kept Chumar on edge for more than a month. His growing concern for his wife, who’s in her 50s and suffers from severe asthma, came to a head when officials reported the first positive case at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility late Thursday. 

“I could hear women in the background crying,” said Chumar, describing a phone call from his wife Friday morning. “They’re all freaking out. … They’re expecting it to spread like wildfire soon in the facility.”

Prisoners, their families and Michigan Department of Corrections employees share concerns about the novel coronavirus as the number of cases among prisoners and staff continues to climb. Since confirming the first prisoner case on March 22, the department said 58 prisoners at eight facilities and one parolee have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sunday. Twelve employees have been diagnosed. 

No prisoners or employees who have tested positive for the virus have died, Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said Sunday.

Like Chumar, families of people in prison have told the Free Press that they have unanswered questions about the department’s quarantining procedures and concerns over how officials will try to slow the spread of the virus. They fear for their loved ones’ health in prison, where some health experts say social distancing is next to impossible. 

Meanwhile, officers want assurances from the governor and the prison administration that they will be made high priorities for receiving masks and other protective gear they need to interact with infected prisoners, Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization union, said Friday. 

“People have a lot of anxiety over how this is potentially going to spread quickly,” he said. 

That anxiety exists across the nation, as people whose lives touch jail and prison systems worry that conditions in these facilities will only hasten the pandemic. Prisoner deaths are now starting to be reported around the nation, for prisoners held in both state and federal facilities.

Quarantine procedures

In Michigan, Gautz said the department is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on managing COVID-19 in correctional settings. Michigan houses roughly 38,000 state prisoners. 

Gautz said each prison has its own plan for how to quarantine prisoners, depending on the facility’s layout. Prisoners are being isolated in spaces such as segregation areas, gymnasiums and visiting rooms, he said.  

Facilities need multiple areas to quarantine individuals who’ve come into close contact with other prisoners diagnosed with COVID-19, Gautz said. That can be a challenge for minimum-security prisons that consist of pole barns with open housing units, such as Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson and Kinross Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula. Gautz said some prisons have identified off-site buildings as quarantine facilities. 

Additionally, “a dozen facilities have identified areas at their facility where they could take in prisoners if they had a large influx” of prisoners who need to be quarantined, he said. 

Prisoners confirmed to have the coronavirus at Parnall, which has the most positive prisoner cases at 20 as of Sunday, were moved last week to the department’s Duane Waters Health Department in Jackson, Gautz said. Prisoners who came into close contact with individuals who tested positive have been put up on bunkbeds in Parnall’s gymnasium. 

“It wouldn’t be an area that the general population is going to be traveling or having any contact,” Gautz said. 

Department staff on Friday began transferring some prisoners who’ve tested positive to a housing unit of Robert G. Cotton Correctional Facility near Jackson. 

At Cotton, inmates with confirmed cases from prisons including Macomb, Lakeland and Parnall correctional facilities will be isolated in single- or double-bed rooms. The unit can hold up to 90 prisoners and has full walls and cell doors, Gautz said.

Some staff have expressed concern about moving prisoners who test positive for COVID-19 to the facility, which has yet to report any positive cases inside its walls. 

Gautz said employees working in the unit at Cotton are outfitted with full personal protective equipment. Staff who have volunteered to work in that unit, which is separate from the rest of the prison, are not going into other units at Cotton, he said.

There are separate staff showers and a laundry area for employees to wash their uniforms. They are sent home in clean sweatsuits provided by the department, Gautz said. 

Officers’ concerns

Gautz said masks are provided to staff and prisoners who work with individuals quarantined because they came into close contact with a confirmed patient. 

Osborn, president of the Michigan corrections union, said Friday that officers need more masks. He said there are four prison sewing facilities across the state and he’s been told prisoners are working around-the-clock to sew masks to meet the needs of prison staff.

Multiple prison employees have expressed concern that aside from being coughed on or sneezed on, the department defines “close contact” as having been within about six feet of an infected individual for 30 minutes or longer.

Since only those close contacts must be notified when prisoners test positive for COVID-19, employees say this definition leaves too many employees not notified and at risk when a positive test is returned.

Gautz said the department follows the CDC’s definition of close contacts and has received guidance from a medical team at Wayne State University.

Another issue the officers are concerned about is that they are getting sent home for 14 days of quarantine when they are exposed to a prisoner who tests positive, Osborn said. The officers do not have a problem with that, knowing it is for their own good, but they are not happy that they are being required to use their own leave time to cover the quarantine period, he said. The state should provide separate paid leave to cover that time, since it is not the fault of the officers involved, he said.

About 30 officers are currently off on quarantine, Osborn said.

Osborn said he’s been generally supportive of continuing with prisoner classes and use of the gym and day rooms but has also supported restricting those prisoner movements to limit mingling between prisoners and other prisoners, as well as prisoners and staff.

“Their intentions were good,” Osborn said of prison managers. “They were trying to minimize the disruption to the normal routines.” 

The department canceled college courses but continues to run programs that prisoners need to qualify for parole. 

“Keeping the prisoners engaged and focused also helps keep staff safe. Having idle prisoners can be a danger,” Gautz said.

Osborn said corrections employees have resigned themselves to the fact that COVID-19 will likely touch every prison.

Now, “with a pandemic spreading across the state, we really feel the department needs to buckle some things down,” he said. 

‘Fear is setting in’

Jamie Meade, a prisoner at Macomb Correctional Facility, said he is concerned about the virus potentially spreading inside the prison after he said staff moved individuals from a unit where one prisoner recently tested positive to his unit late last week. 

Gautz said prisoners who’ve been exposed to a confirmed patient are moved within a facility “only for medical purposes, to help reduce the spread” by transferring them from more open settings to confined units. 

The department over the weekend took steps to restrict prisoner movement at facilities that are reporting large numbers of COVID-19 cases, such as Macomb, where 16 prisoners have tested positive as of Sunday. 

To try to avoid contracting the virus, Meade,who’s serving a life sentence for a conviction of first-degree murder in Wayne County, said he tries not to leave the room that he shares with another prisoner, except to use the phone or send an email. He said prisoners were recently given masks made out of the same material as their uniforms.

Meade said Sunday that tensions inside Macomb were beginning to flare as prisoners worry that they will get sick and die. 

“The fear is setting in, and I think it’s only going to get worse,” Meade said.

Sophia Brothers, of Pontiac, said she can hear the heightened anxiety when her friend calls her daily from Lakeland Correctional Facility. The Coldwater prison, which has a unit for geriatric prisoners, reported seven confirmed cases as of Sunday. 

“He had me make a round of phone calls for him to tell people that he loves them, just in case anything happens,” Brothers said. 

Families say they’re waiting on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to address the impact of COVID-19 on the state’s incarcerated population.

In an executive order late Sunday aimed at county jails and juvenile detention centers, Whitmer ordered the Corrections Department to continue the steps it was already taking to slow the spread of coronavirus and formalized a halt on transfers between county jails and state prisons.

Otherwise, Whitmer has not addressed the Department of Corrections in her news conferences or press releases since declaring a state of emergency.

“By not saying anything, it says to me, ‘You’re not even here. You’re not even important enough to be mentioned,'” said Suzanna Johnson, of Greenville, whose boyfriend is incarcerated at Newberry Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula, where there was one positive case as of Sunday. 

While local jail populations across the state have dropped during the coronavirus outbreak, advocacy organizations are pushing for action at the state level. A petition by the American Friends Service Committee and Safe and Just Michigan calls on Whitmer to commute the sentences of long-serving elderly prisoners and those who are chronically ill. 

A message seeking comment from Whitmer’s office was not returned Friday. 

Chumar, whose wife is incarcerated, said he’s written to Whitmer asking her to consider releasing his wife for medical reasons. Seven prisoners at Women’s Huron Valley have tested positive as of Sunday, and Chumar worries that his wife’s asthma puts her at higher risk for getting seriously ill from COVID-19. 

“I’m nobody special. Neither is my wife. But in this instance, she needs to do something,” he said. 

Source: Angie Jackson and Paul Egan, Detroit Free Press

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