UP prison sees rise in coronavirus cases

PENTLAND TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WJMN) — Out of the six state prisons in the Upper Peninsula, only two have had confirmed cases of coronavirus within the prisoner population. And over the last week, Newberry Correctional Facility in Luce County has seen a spike in case numbers.

On Aug. 1, Newberry had its first staff member test positive for COVID-19. On Aug. 5, the first prisoner tested positive. As of Aug. 11, the facility stands at 32 positive prisoner cases.

“If a prisoner tests positive, it’s a little different at Newberry compared to other facilities,” Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said. “What’s happening right now in Newberry is we’ve identified and opened a section of a housing unit where all prisoners who have tested positive are going to be moved to… They’re going to stay there and remain isolated from the rest of the prisoner population. Anything they do, they’ll move as a group. They won’t have any connection with staff or prisoners outside of that unit.”

Mass testing was done at Baraga Correctional Facility last month after a handful of staff members tested positive. No prisoners’ tests came back positives.

In April, MDOC tested every single inmate in the state. Gautz said Michigan is one of the few states in the country to do that.

He said that the vast majority of positive cases within MDOC have been asymptomatic.

“These last few cases, both in Newberry and at Muskegon, where we had our last most recent outbreak, we currently have no prisoners in the hospital, nobody’s on a ventilator,” Gautz said. “So the cases that we’ve seen in the last few weeks at several facilities have not been very serious. So thankfully the prisoners are all doing well that have tested positive, and again it was a surprise for some of them because they didn’t feel any different.”

Prisoners who test positive will be isolated for 14 days and must test negative before moving to the next “step-down phase.” That phase means they are no longer infected but are continuously being monitored for symptoms. After 30 days, the prisoner is considered “recovered” status and moved back into the general prison population.

MDOC transfers more vulnerable inmates, like the elderly, to downstate facilities to be closer to the department’s health center.

Gautz said limiting the number of prisoner transfers to other facilities has helped limit the spread. Before the pandemic, MDOC typically transferred about 2,500 prisoners every month. Now the department transfers about 300 prisoners every month. MDOC has also stopped transferring prisoners from downstate facilities to the Upper Peninsula.

Staff members and prisoners are required to wear masks within the facilities.

“We remind our staff and prisoners every day that this is not the time to be complacent,” Gautz said. “Wearing a mask is still critically important, being socially distant inside the facility at all times is also important, and that masks are not a replacement for social distancing.”

As for testing accessibility and supply numbers, MDOC has not had any issues with getting testing kits. It has been working with state and private labs for testing. For a full list of test results for each correctional facility in Michigan, you can visit MDOC’s website.