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As COVID-19 spreads in Michigan prisons, isolation is shortened for corrections staff

Some Michigan prisons are accelerating the return of staff after a positive coronavirus test.
Office of Legislative Corrections Ombudsman
Some Michigan prisons are accelerating the return of staff after a positive coronavirus test.

Ten state prisons were operating under contingency plans because of staffing shortages Wednesday. At those facilities, corrections officers who get COVID-19 can now return to work five days after a positive coronavirus test if they’re asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and wear a KN95 mask.

Those without all their COVID vaccines also need a negative test, but that test is not required for workers at short-staffed prisons who are fully vaccinated and boosted.

Matt Tjapkes, who leads the nonprofit group Humanity for Prisoners, said the new rules are not enough to protect people who are in prison. A negative test should be necessary to return to work in all cases, Tjapkes said.

"The prisoners have absolutely no choice about who they are exposed to," Tjapkes said. "This is completely under the control of the Department of Corrections. And they have to treat these prisoners humanely.”

Michigan prisons made the changes under a state health department order that reflects guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said corrections department spokesperson Chris Gautz.

Last month, the CDC said people with COVID-19 whose symptoms were improving could stop isolating after five days if they continued to wear a well-fitting mask around others for five days after that.

As the omicron variant spreads, many corrections employees have mild or asymptomatic cases, but it's been difficult for the department to keep up staffing levels with 50 to 100 workers testing positive for the virus each day, Gautz said.

"We need to be able to have staff who are able to work inside the prisons to be able to run them safely and securely," said Gautz. "Just the same way in which, you know, hospitals need doctors and nurses to be able to continue to maintain their operations, which is, in part, some of the reason why CDC changed their guidance late last year."

As omicron surges, the CDC encourages using a KN95 or N95 mask. Michigan inmates are given cloth masks, Gautz said, although he said the department is working to make KN95s more widely available.

At the 17 Michigan prisons not operating under contingency plans, staff who got COVID can now return to work after seven days instead of 10 if they have mild or no symptoms and a negative test.

Heather Moore is married to an incarcerated man with multiple health issues. She said she worries the relaxed isolation rules will endanger inmates and says it's been incredibly stressful to have a loved one behind bars during the pandemic.

"It shouldn't be a horrible existence for family to support the people inside any more than it should be a horrible existence to be in prison," Moore said. "Prison is the punishment, and so let that be the punishment without piling on disregard and disrespect.”

Moore is a Humanity for Prisoners board member, although she said her opinions are her own and not the organization's.

Gautz said the state corrections department is working to ease its staffing crunch through a recertification program that allows employees with previous corrections experience to work inside prisons. And, he said, 23 National Guard members are deployed at two Michigan prisons for tasks including COVID vaccinations, testing and wellness checks.

Although staffing shortages are a problem, Moore says the ultimate solution is to reduce Michigan's prison population.

"To perpetuate a pandemic within a closed, congregate environment where people have no say in their health and safety is ridiculous," Moore said. "It makes zero sense."

There were 3,805 active COVID-19 cases among about 32,000 Michigan inmates, according to MDOC data updated Wednesday.

The largest outbreak was at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Washtenaw County, Gautz said – but that was also the cause of a glimmer of hope: As the number of cases increased, so did the vaccination rate.

“We saw a rise in vaccine interest when omicron hit because the prisoners there saw how quickly it was moving and how many were getting it,” said Gautz. “We had a number of women (who) said, ‘I declined it before but I want the vaccine now.’”

Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton contributed reporting.

Sarah Lehr joined WKAR in June of 2021 in the role of politics and civics reporter.
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