How Michigan’s prison system is handling coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Department of Corrections is making its own personal protection equipment and is prepared to move inmates to currently vacant facilities as inmates and employees test positive for coronavirus.

As of Monday, 14 MDOC employees and about 80 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19. 

“Obviously we know our prisoners aren’t doing international travel or domestic travel, so we know that if it’s coming in, it’s being brought in to them and then spread around,” MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz told News 8. “Just this week, we’ve enacted even stricter control on that screening criteria.”

The department closed facilities to visitors and volunteers two weeks ago. Gautz said some essential employees have had trouble getting tested, so now in addition to screening questions prior to going into work, anyone experiencing symptoms will be off for seven days. 

COMMUNICATION WITH FAMILIES, EMPLOYEES

Gautz said internal communication is going out to inmates and MDOC employees every other day to be as transparent as possible through this process.

“We absolutely understand and empathize with the families of prisoners and also with the families of our staff who are inside. It’s a very difficult time, but that’s why we’re being as open and transparent as we can,” Gautz explained. “In the absence of information, we see rumors spreading, we see lots of misinformation out there, so we want to make sure that people know what’s really going on and hopefully find some comfort in that.”

The department is posting testing updates online as much as possible and has created an FAQ section on its response to the outbreak.

INMATE TESTING, SOCIAL DISTANCING

As of Monday afternoon, MDOC had tested more than 150 inmates. 

“We have more than 30 at the labs right now, so our numbers are going to continue to go up because we’re continuing to test as many as were able to,” Gautz explained.

He said if a person meets testing criteria, the facility contacts the county health department. The health department then must give approval for MDOC to test the inmate.

In addition to closing facilities to outside visitors, changes have been made inside to cut down on close contact.

“We still run our GED classes,” Gautz said. “We need to keep the prisoners active and engaged. Idle prisoners can be a dangerous thing, so we need to make sure that we’re trying to run things as close to normal as possible, knowing that we have to do everything we can to reduce groups of people gathering.”

Class sizes have been cut from 10 to 15 people down to six to eight at a time, with more classes running throughout the day so inmates can still learn. 

“We send half as many people to the chow hall at a time so that we have two people sitting at a table rather than four. We have them sit farther apart and then we also have them clean between each group that comes in,” Gautz added. 

Basketball is also not allowed right now. 

“Really the only place where we’re not able to practice social distancing is in the housing units themselves and where they live,” Gautz said. “If they’re in a small cell with two people or if they’re in a large bunk with eight people.”

VACANT FACILITIES READY TO HOUSE SICK PEOPLE

A closed MDOC facility in Jackson is currently housing between 30 and 40 inmates who tested positive for coronavirus. The hope is that other facilities around the state won’t be needed to transport sick inmates, but the department is prepared, if necessary, to isolate positive prisoners who don’t need outside medical attention.

“It’s a contingency plan we have in place for Carson City, as well as about a dozen other facilities around the state where we have previously closed housing units because our population has been declining,” Gautz said. 

Out of about 80 people currently sick inside MDOC facilities, Gautz said only a few have needed hospital care. 

TRANSFER ORDER AND EARLY RELEASE

On Sunday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a new executive order impacting detention centers

“The governor’s halting of transfers from the county jails to our intake system, that was a huge step and we’re really happy to see that,” Gautz said. “We don’t oversee the jails, so without knowing how they’re screening (transfers), if they’re screening them, what checks they’re doing on these individuals, when you bring them into our setting, there’s the potential to have it spread.”

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Gautz said halting transfers for a week will allow jail inspectors to review screening criteria and analyze if MDOC is comfortable with how each individual county is handling detainees. 

There’s also a question of whether MDOC is considering early release for certain inmates. It’s a complicated approach. 

Of the 38,000 people currently in MDOC facilities, Gautz said about 5,000 are eligible for release review.

“We’ve taken that list of 5,000 and then we’ve cross-referenced it with our list of prisoners who are over the age of 60 as well as those who have a chronic care condition,” Gautz explained. “The problem is that a large chunk, the vast majority of those 5,000 prisoners who we do have the ability to release, in some fashion, are serving for assaultive offenses, homicides and often sexual offenses. So there’s a reason why we’ve had the ability to parole them and have not yet, because public safety has to come first.”

While the department continues to review those individual cases, officials are working to speed up scheduled releases. 

Prior to needing a pandemic response plan, 120 prisoners were already scheduled to be released by MDOC this week.

“We’re also looking to speed up other paroles that have already been granted. Say prisoners who were set to be released, maybe the second week of April or the first week of April, our team is now looking at those cases and saying, ‘Since we’ve already agreed you can be let out, let’s see what we can do to speed that up,’” Gautz said. 

MDOC FACTORIES MAKING PPE

News 8 recently featured MDOC’s license plate plant near Adrian. That facility and others are now focused on masks and other personal protective equipment.

“We’re moving those facilities to making masks, gowns and protective eyewear,” Gautz said. “Within the next week or so, every staff member will have three masks, as well as will every prisoner… For the time being for those staff whose facilities who have not received their shipment from us, we’ve allowed them to bring in their own masks, gowns, gloves, whatever they wish until we’re able to provide them for the entire facility.”

The masks aren’t N95 masks, but the facilities are able to make thousands of simple masks as a time that can be worn by inmates and employees.

Gautz said it would take an executive order for the factories to be able to make equipment for entities outside of MDOC because of laws that prevent the department from selling items made by inmates. 

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