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Coronavirus cases surge in Michigan’s crowded prisons

Cases of coronavirus are surging in Michigan’s crowded prisons, raising fears of a potential lethal viral outbreak in facilities where it is difficult or impossible for inmates to isolate themselves.

Cases climbed to 24 inmates and one parolee on Friday, up from a single case just four days earlier. Ten of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 are in a single prison near Jackson, Parnall Correctional Facility. There are confirmed cases in seven other prisons.

Parnall Correctional Facility – site of the biggest spike in cases – is a minimum security prison with a capacity of about 1,700 inmates.

At least three Michigan Department of Corrections employees have tested positive as well, and dozens of inmates are in quarantine in a system that houses about 38,000 prisoners.

As confirmed cases of coronavirus mount, experts warn that the state’s sprawling prison system could be a tinderbox for coronavirus.

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz could not be reached for comment Friday about the rapid increase in confirmed cases of the deadly virus. 

Even with MDOC measures to try to prevent spread of the virus, experts say the very nature of prison life runs contrary to the guidelines of social distancing Michigan residents have been ordered to follow.

Some inmates in many prisons are packed in groups of seven or eight in 10-by-20 foot cells according to the head of a prison guard association. They share showers. They may walk in groups to the dinner hall. They mingle in exercise yards.  They have physical encounters with guards.

Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert at Michigan State University, said it’s fertile ground for a lethal virus. And it’s an environment that poses a particular threat to the prison system’s older inmates – and possibly to the outside world.

“If I am a virus, it’s exactly what I want,” Gulick told Bridge Magazine.

“You have prisoners enclosed within a small area. All you need is one or two individuals who are infected, coughing or sneezing. My God, this could be an explosion waiting to happen.”

Another health expert offered a similarly grim perspective.

“Prisons throw people into the paths of epidemics, whether it is TB or HIV or the coronavirus,” Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist, said this month.

“People without proper ventilation, it is a perfect breeding ground for quick transmission of any respiratory virus.”

There are parallel fears over the estimated 15,000 inmates housed in Michigan jails, as judges in many counties are releasing non-violent offenders to free up more space in the jail.

And even in a less crowded environment, the Michigan Department of Health and Humans Services on Tuesday announced six cases of COVID-19 among patients and staff in its public psychiatric system. That includes three patients and two staff members at Walter Reuther Psychiatric Hospital in suburban Detroit and one patient at its Center for Forensic Psychiatry south of Ann Arbor.

MDOC officials say they’re doing what they can to hold back spread of the virus in a system that houses about 38,000 prisoners.

On March 13, the department suspended outside visits to the prison after it identified what it believed to be a flu epidemic in 10 of its prisons. Symptoms of the flu are similar to symptoms of coronavirus. The suspension includes outside volunteer groups who come to the prison, according to an MDOC release.

It imposed screening procedures for anyone entering the prison, including a temperature check. Anyone with a temperature over 100.4 degrees is not allowed to enter.

MDOC cancelled face-to-face college classes at all prisons. It encouraged employees not involved in day-to-day prison operations to telecommute.

MDOC also cut face-to-face staff meetings and reduced their size to allow attendees to remain six feet apart, the social distancing standard health experts recommend.

It also provided additional soap for prisoners and in the bathrooms, and authorized bleach as a cleaning agent.

Prison spokesperson Gautz said inmates have been instructed not to gather in large groups and that high-contact activities such as basketball are banned. 

But Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, said MDOC’S measures do little to blunt the realities of daily prison life for guards and inmates alike. The organization represents some 6,500 corrections officers and security assistants.

 “Each prison is its own small city,” Osborn, a veteran corrections officer himself, told Bridge. “A lot of them have open bays, where you have seven or eight in a cell.

“Some prisons have more in big open rooms, bunks lined up like in the military. They all go to the food hall. It’s virtually impossible to keep them at any distance.”

Gautz told Bridge last week that prisons had been instructed to cut the number of people in dining halls to half as many as normal, and to try to not sit more than two inmates at each table.

Osborn said it’s unavoidable that prison guards come into close physical contact with prisoners when they do strip searches, handcuff them or escort them to isolation cells. While they wear standard protective gear for that, Osborn said they do not wear surgical masks unless prisoners they are handling have tested positive for the virus.

“The concern for us and for the state of Michigan is a worst-case scenario where the virus is running rampant inside a correctional facility and the prisoners are getting anxious and acting out,” Osborn said.

Osborn described Parnall Correctional Facility, hotspot of the coronavirus outbreak, like this: “Parnall is one of the facilities that has multiple prisoners to a room and also has some old traditional cells with open bars, which is part of the old original Jackson prison. 

“They are in close proximity all the time.”

The health threat is greatest to a prison population that is graying, as the percentage of Michigan prisoners over age 50 climbed from 11.8 percent in 2003 to 23.2 percent in 2017. The percentage of prisoners over  60 nearly tripled, from 2.8 percent in 2003 to 8.1 percent in 2017.

A report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that, while the overall death rate of reported COVID-19 cases in that country was about 2.3 percent, mortality shot up to 8 percent for people in their 70s who became ill, and 14.8 percent for those in their 80s. Mortality of those in their 60s was about 3.6 percent. 

The average age of Michigan residents who have died from coronavirus as of Friday was 68.

Despite MDOC measures aimed at curtailing the virus within the prison system, there’s a continual stream of prisoners being released to the outside world. As cases rise within the system, MSU disease expert Gulick said, that’s an ongoing worry.

Detroit resident and parolee Davon Arbitter told Bridge he was put in a quarantine cell on Monday, along with his cellmate, after both came down with a fever at Detroit Reentry Center. Arbitter said he had been locked up since March 12 for a parole violation on a home invasion charge.

Arbitter said he was released the following day at about 6 p.m. – two days ahead of his scheduled release date  – and dropped off with his cellmate at a bus stop about 15 minutes from the prison. He said both were advised to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Arbitter reached out to a Detroit lawyer, Jon Marko, with a similar account.

“I felt like they pushed us out the door. They were acting so scared, like they didn’t want to come around us,” he told Bridge.

He said he found a ride to a hospital emergency room, where he was diagnosed as “suspected COVID-19 viral infection,” according to a medical report examined by Bridge. He said he still has not been tested for coronavirus.  

Pontiac resident David Aguilar, Arbitter’s cellmate, confirmed Arbitter’s account of their release from Detroit Reentry.

“That’s exactly what happened,” he said.

Aguilar said he was released three weeks ahead of his scheduled release date. Unlike Arbitter, he said was given a nasal swab test at Detroit Reentry for COVID-19 the day before his release. 

Quarantined at home in Pontiac, he said he got a call Thursday afternoon from his parole officer. She told him he had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Now, he said, he’s afraid he could pass along his infection to others in his household.

“I feel like they should never have let me out. The safety and health of others is far more important than a couple more weeks in jail.”

Bridge reached out to MDOC for response to these prisoner accounts, but did not hear back.

Prisons around the country are facing a rise in COVID-19, especially New York State, where at least 82 people in the prison system tested positive as of Tuesday. That included 52 people incarcerated at New York City’s Rikers Island prison, where another 96 other people were under observation.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to release 300 more people from Rikers, in addition to the 75 released last week.

There are new cases just about each day of coronavirus among correctional officers and inmates, from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Georgia and Wisconsin.

Michigan judges, in the meantime, are also approving early release of jail inmates.

In Macomb County, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said the jail housed about 875 inmates a couple months ago. As of Tuesday, there were about 675.

In Oakland County, judges were reviewing sentences of nonviolent offenders and those with medical conditions. Three weeks ago, the Oakland County jail had 1,262 inmates, Tuesday it had 1,079.

Wayne County officials said the jail has released nearly 250 inmates since the rise of coronavirus.

A few months ago, Kent County’s jail population was about 1,000. It’s down to about 850 today, Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young told Bridge.

“Judges looked at those people on their caseload and made decisions on who could be released. Nobody on a violent charge. These are inmates on a low bond amount who could be released on a (personal recognizance) bond, or inmates in the jail on work release, low-level offenders.”

Lajoye-Young said these releases should help the jail maintain better social isolation of inmates.

“It’s given us a little bit more space within the housing to see to it that the six-foot separation is feasible.”

She added that any prisoners “with any symptoms” related to coronavirus are kept in single cells away from other prisoners. 

Most prisoners at the jail are separated in individual cells, she said.

But some are housed in cells of up to four prisoners, after they have been monitored for any conditions that suggest infection by coronavirus. She understands it’s less than ideal social isolation.

“We are absolutely doing the best we can.”

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