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An illustration of an inmate receiving a COVID-19 nasal swab test

“Was this gonna be a death sentence for me?” Inside the pandemic at the Wayne Co. Jail

It was May 2020, and Corey Holmes was 19 months into his stay at the Wayne County Jail, and two months into a deadly global pandemic.

"We had no information about what COVID was,” Holmes said. “Everything that I learned about COVID I learned from watching the news. And at that time, the only thing that I really knew was that if you caught COVID, you could die.”

Two years later, Holmes is still awaiting trial inside the jail.

"‘Was this gonna be a death sentence for me?’” he remembered asking himself in the early days of the pandemic. COVID had already ravaged the Holmes family. His sister said her father and a young cousin, only in her mid-20s, had both died of the virus.

“My greatest fear at this point is that I was going to lose my brother based on something that the penal system gave him,” LaTonya Holmes said.

Photo provided by Holmes' family
Corey Holmes has been in Wayne County's Old Jail throughout the pandemic.

In mid-May 2020, Corey Holmes said he and several others in his unit were moved into separate housing without explanation. They didn’t know if they’d tested positive or had been in contact with someone who was positive.

"Do I not have COVID? Like, what's going on? When is somebody from health care going to come and talk to me? Why hasn't someone come and talked to us yet?" he remembered asking.

In the months that followed, the Wayne County Jail would see a mass release of inmates, a class action lawsuit, and a court order requiring a slate of COVID mitigation strategies. Ultimately, the jail kept its COVID positivity rate remarkably low — and no one in custody died from the virus.

To understand how the jail and its for-profit medical providers handled COVID over the past two years, we spoke with more than a dozen inmates in the Wayne County Jail, as well as lawyers, health care workers, and advocates. Those interviews paint a picture of disarray and indifference during much of the pandemic – problems that appear to have improved in late 2021, once the county switched medical providers. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, fear moved from cell to cell.

A protest, followed by a crackdown

Corey Holmes said guards at the jail dismissed his concerns when he asked about his COVID status on that day in May 2020.

“‘You're not stupid, figure it out. Like, why do you think you're here? Put two and two together,’" Holmes recalled being told. "They're like completely making a joke out of it.”

The 43-year-old said he and three others detained in the jail staged a protest in an effort to get their questions answered. During lockdown at night, they slept outside their cells for what Holmes and others involved called a peaceful protest.

Later that night, they said, deputies swarmed the area in what Holmes described as riot gear, slamming inmates to the ground repeatedly and leaving them handcuffed for hours.

Shamika White, the mother of another man involved in the protest, made a series of Facebook posts chronicling the episode, and posted a video on May 16 that was shared almost 500 times. Her Facebook post alleged that jail authorities cut off phone access for those who defied orders to lock down.

Used with permission from White's children.
Screenshot of a post from Shamika White's Facebook.

LaTonya Holmes was frantic for information about her brother, Corey. “It was absolutely freaking horrifying to not be able to hear from him,” she said. To make matters worse, she said jail staff told her privacy laws prevented them from providing information about Corey, and yet staff would not take steps to get his permission to speak to her.

“I cried several times to these people,” she said. “It was not as though any of those inmates brought [COVID] in. You would think they would have been a bit more empathetic. ”

Michigan Radio recounted the details of this incident months later to Robert Dunlap, the chief of jails in Wayne County. Dunlap said he has no recollection of the altercation.

“I'm not aware of any major issues or fights,” he said. “I hear a lot of different stories when people get a certain amount of attention. We in the Wayne County Sheriff's Office have had, I would say, very good success and very good cooperation for the most part with our inmate population.”

But one health care worker who has since left the jail for another job was familiar with the protest, and acknowledged the inmates’ frustration. (Michigan Radio is withholding her name out of concern for potential reprisal.)

“They definitely got their results,” the medical staffer said, explaining that the tension arose during the time it took for medical staff and medical records personnel to figure out out how to share COVID-19 test results while adhering to established standards around medical privacy.

The incident highlights some of the many overlapping challenges involved in delivering medical care in jail — and how they were exacerbated by the pandemic. Issues like patient privacy had to be considered even amidst a deadly, highly contagious virus. Those confined to jail had limited access to information at a time when learning how to stave off infection became a matter of life and death – especially in the early days, when scientists were scrambling to understand how the virus spread.

Inside a jail, no place is safe

With the start of the pandemic, public health agencies called for heightened vigilance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These appeals were considered especially vital in congregate living settings where social distancing was a challenge. Across the country, colleges ordered students to vacate dormitories, and nursing homes imposed strict lockdowns that left visitors waving to loved one through sealed windows. While jails in Michigan barred visitation from family members during the pandemic, people were still being brought in from the outside following arrest, transferred to prison following conviction, or sent home upon release.

The virus has been especially deadly in correctional facilities, which quickly became hotspots. Early in the pandemic the Cook County Jail, which serves Chicago, became the country’s largest source of COVID infection according to a New York Times analysis. A year-long study of federal and state prisons found the virus death rate from COVID to be more than double that of the general population. In Michigan, people in prison were nine times as likely as the general population to contract the virus.

With a population that is disproportionately likely to be low-income and high-risk for chronic disease moving in and out of the close quarters, jail may well be the single worst possible setting to spend the pandemic.

The conditions within the Wayne County Jail system, which is the largest in the state by far, raised additional concerns. One of its three facilities — the Division II Jail, or “Old Jail” — was first censured more than 50 years ago, after a group of inmates sued over unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions, as well as inadequate healthcare.

Wayne County Jail's interior in 1929.
Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs
Wayne State University
Wayne County Jail's Division II facility, or "Old Jail" was built in 1929 and is still in use.

A few years ago, after a spate of inmate suicides, Wayne County officials transferred health care responsibilities from the county to a private medical provider. Wellpath, which has similar contracts across the country, has had a contentious relationship with government oversight bodies as well as among people facing incarceration and their families.

“They just knew that they had these deaths”

In the first weeks after COVID began to creep through Michigan, the Wayne County Jail’s medical director — who worked for Wellpath — contracted the virus.

Angelo Patsalis “was blunt, but he was concerned about my health,” a woman named Diana Trueblood told The Guardian after receiving care from Patsalis while incarcerated that spring. In jail, she said, usually, “they just don’t care.”

Five days after he was intubated, on April 6, Patsalis died.

“He was a wonderful and irreplaceable person,” his fiancée, Denise Bargon, told The Guardian. “He just put everything into being a doctor.”

Patsalis was three weeks away from celebrating his 64th birthday. His father, 86, died of COVID-19 two days after his only son.

The same day that Patsalis died — April 6, 2020 — the jail began to work with Wayne State University to test sheriff’s deputies and others going in and out of jail, according to Reuters.

About a week later, another jail doctor, Richard Miles, died of COVID, along with a commander with the sheriff’s office named Donafay Collins.

“Nobody knew who had COVID in jail or who didn't; they just knew that they had these deaths,” said Sheryl Kubiak, a dean at Wayne State University who heads its Center for Behavioral Health and Justice. “People were really scared at that point.”

But sources who worked closely with the Wayne County Jail at the time told Michigan Radio that its contracted medical provider, Wellpath, seemed uninterested in spearheading efforts to track and prevent the spread of COVID.

"Their motivation was simply self-interest."

When a former health care worker asked Wellpath to make a more concerted effort to safeguard inmates from the virus in the weeks after it hit Michigan, the health care worker said company officials told her they didn’t have enough staff, or that staff didn't have the time. “Their motivation was simply self-interest,” one source said. Another source independently offered a similar characterization of Wellpath’s response to testing inmates, saying it was driven by profit: “If we're going to do it, there's going to be a dollar amount” was the company’s attitude. (Wellpath did not answer questions from Michigan Radio about its response to COVID in the Wayne County Jail.)

Kubiak had been working on efforts to ensure people leaving the jail had support for mental health and substance abuse issues when she came to realize no one was testing people for COVID when they were released. She started to grow concerned that the constant flow of inmates, guards, doctors, nurses, and others could lead to even more death without a plan in place to try and prevent the virus from spreading.

“So that's when we got more involved in the Wayne County Jail,” Kubiak said. “We were just thinking like, ‘Hey, if we're not paying attention to this jail, who will?’”

She helped bring together community partners, local agencies, and area hospitals to develop and fund a plan for testing those who came in and out of jail, or who showed symptoms. They also worked to trace outbreaks of the virus, and to quarantine those who were found to be positive in the jail.

“It turned out we were like the first in the nation that we're really looking at these things,” Kubiak said. So much so that she and her colleagues received a grant from the CDC Foundation to develop “a kind of best practices toolkit for jails during COVID.”

It wasn’t until weeks after Angelo Patsalis died that COVID tests first became available to inmates. They were administered not by Wellpath but by staff from the Wayne State University Medical School. The Wayne County government later contracted with another provider to test inmates. 

It was “frightening,” the former jail health care worker said, “where we started with everything.” She characterized the experience of working in the jail at the start of the pandemic as “chaotic” and said she often found herself struggling to convey the importance of following guidelines due to what she considered to be Wellpath’s striking indifference to inmates’ health. Even so, the effort to keep COVID out of jail seems to have worked. When it came to protecting inmates, she said, “We did a really, really, really good job.”

For Kubiak, the numbers are proof that the effort was successful. “There were remarkably low positivity rates in the jail,” she said. In fact, the COVID positivity rate among people detained in jail in Wayne County never rose above 4% — which is about ten times less than the peak in Detroit, where two out of three jail facilities are located.

“We ain't got no masks”

In the early months of the pandemic, many institutions were swept up in an anxious scramble to stock up on cleaning agents, hand sanitizer, latex gloves, and face masks. The need for personal protective equipment was especially urgent for the “essential workers” who had to continue reporting to job sites even as many others shifted to remote work.

“Due to the litany of bureaucracy that goes on at different agencies and locations, they didn't move fast enough to get PPE to hospitals, to fire departments, to police agencies,” said Allen Cox, president of the union that represents deputy sheriffs in Wayne County. “It was our union that was screaming and hollering on social media and in the press. We need facemasks, we need goggles, we need the appropriate PPE because in the [jail] environment we were constantly having contact with people who may or may not have been exposed to COVID. Our rates of exposure were astronomical.”

In the spring of 2020, people incarcerated at the jail were also increasingly panicked.

“We ain't got no masks,” an inmate named Anthony Childs said in a video call from the jail recorded by his friend Deidra Washington. Childs had called her from the tablet he shared with others in his unit. A few of them also appear in the video calling out the jail for not cleaning cells with bleach, providing extra soap, or administering tests to people who showed symptoms. “I just had symptoms,” one of the men said. “I need a test.”

Washington posted the video to YouTube on April 9, and it was shared by local news outlets soon after.

Jail administrators denied the claims made in the video.

“Actually, when those videos were put out, all of those inmates actually had masks,” Chief of Jails Robert Dunlap said in an interview this spring. He said the inmates “staged” the video in an effort to get released.

But attorney Erin Keith of the Detroit Justice Center said she heard similar concerns at the time.

“There were all types of rumors about people who were incarcerated not being able to access things like hand sanitizer because of the alcohol content or, you know, the facilities just being insufficient for people to practice basic hygiene. ”

The rumors were enough to take legal action to ensure that, at minimum, a set of baseline protocols to mitigate COVID were established.

In early May 2020, the Detroit Justice Center and several other local and national civil rights and criminal justice organizations brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of a group of Wayne County Jail inmates.

The complaint stated that inmates were not given masks until April 10 — the day after Deidra Washington posted Childs’ video to YouTube.

The lawsuit, which cited inmates’ difficulty getting face masks and sanitizing products, also made an appeal for the large-scale release of people from jail due to the challenges inherent in preventing the spread of the virus from cell to cell.

“Why are inmates still here?”

The organizations that filed the lawsuit dispatched Dr. Fred Rottnek, a physician who had worked as a medical director of the St. Louis jail system, to tour the three jail facilities in Wayne County to assess how conditions might impact the spread of COVID, how closely staff were following protocols around COVID-19, and how they might improve.

Rottnek visited the Wayne County Jail in May 2020. He boarded a nearly empty flight and had to make several calls before he found a hotel that was open. Stay-at-home orders were still in place and Detroit, he said, “was like a ghost town.”

Rottnek found an even more eerie atmosphere when he entered the jail.

“People were extremely concerned about their health and whether they were going to get out alive,” he recalled.

“Why are inmates still here?” a nurse Rottnek met in the jail wanted to know, adding that medical teams were too short-staffed to provide adequate care.

Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Wayne State University
Wayne County Jail's Division II facility, or "Old Jail" was built in 1929 and is still in use.

A shortage of medical staff in the jail has been a pervasive issue, one that appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Staffing records obtained by WXYZ for the same month as Rottnek’s visit, show that afternoon shifts with a target of 13 nurses usually saw seven or fewer actually working. Midnight shifts had a target of ten nurses, but, at times, were staffed by as few as two. One nurse told WXYZ of a recent midnight shift: “There was one nurse working in the entire Division II and she was responsible for the entire jail and the COVID unit.”

Medical workers told Rottnek that they did not receive COVID-19 testing on a regular basis, and he noted unmasked corrections officers sitting side by side.

Despite being the only outside medical professional to report on the implementation of COVID-19 protocols in the Wayne County Jail as part of the class-action lawsuit, Rottnek’s report and recommendations were struck from consideration. Chief Judge Timothy Kenny determined that Rottnek’s lack of training in the field of infectious disease meant he was “not sufficiently qualified to opine on the effects of COVID-19” and so his findings were not “reliable” or “relevant” in helping him decide how best to respond to inmates’ demands for release from jail or protection from coronavirus.

“Stop housing inmates in Division II as soon as possible."

Conditions in the nearly century-old Division II facility, commonly called the “Old Jail,” have raised concern for decades.

“The filthy, sardine-packed cells, the grossly inadequate medical care, the total lack of exercise facilities, the contaminated food, the arbitrary, punitive and unlawful summary discipline, and the unlawful restrictions on visitation, communication, association and privacy”: These were some of the issues cited in a 1971 lawsuit filed on behalf of jail inmates.

“The manner in which the jail is administered and from the confinement in a structure that is physically inadequate to house its inmate population due to its size, state of disrepair and deterioration,” decreed a panel of judges in Wayne County’s Third Circuit Court, who ruled in favor of inmates and determined that the jail should be overseen by a consent order.

That order is still in place, more than a half-century later — and inmates still complain of unsanitary conditions, pest infestations, and a lack of adequate medical care.

Wayne County Sheriff Raphael Washington admitted that it’s been hard to keep up with the deteriorating conditions inside the Old Jail.

“That jail is almost 100 years old,” he said. “It's been running since its inception, 24 hours, seven days a week. There's never a time that that jail is not running. And so are there challenges? Of course there are.”

He said the jail has a team of trade workers — plumbers, carpenters, electricians — who are headquartered at the Old Jail and work to address issues as they are raised by guards and inmates.

“In short order, we will be in a state-of-the-art new facility, a brand-new facility that is going to help our morale boost,” the sheriff said of the criminal justice complex that is currently under construction.

The issue of crowding in existing jail buildings had already been substantially mitigated by the time Chief Judge Timothy Kenny of Wayne County’s Third Circuit Court issued an opinion in the class-action lawsuit on June 19, 2020. Jail administrators had already worked with courts and lawyers to reduce its population by nearly 45%.

Kenny wrote in his decision that those overseeing the jail “had made extensive efforts to administratively release detainees, thereby significantly reducing the jail population, to implement testing, screening, providing guidance for jail staff, and quarantining of those infected or exposed to others who have been infected.”

Kenny added a series of additional terms to the existing consent order, including a requirement to ensure that everyone brought into custody of the jail be tested for COVID upon booking, and re-tested if they were found negative. He also included more than a dozen other provisions around COVID, requiring the jail to provide soap and sanitation products to inmates on a regular basis without charge; to quarantine those who have or are suspected to have the virus; to train staff to identify COVID-19 symptoms and to require them to wear masks; to provide for social distancing per CDC guidelines to “the extent possible,” as well as other measures.

Critics like Fred Rottnek said those protocols are not enough to mitigate the spread of the virus in the Old Jail. His report contained this blunt recommendation: “Stop housing inmates in Division II as soon as possible. And then stop requiring staff to work there.”

But despite Washington’s professed vaccine advocacy, several inmates in the Wayne County Jail say they asked for but did not receive the vaccine — even, in some cases, after filing numerous requests. Michigan Radio sent written questions to the 120 people we found who have been in jail awaiting trial in Wayne County for 18 or more months as of January 2022.

“I don't have to be convinced that the vaccine is what we need”

In the fall of 2020, as the jail worked to adopt new COVID protocols and adhere to the terms of the consent order, it was hit with another devastating blow.

On Nov. 19, Sheriff Benny Napoleon announced that he had tested positive for the virus. “At this time I have a slight headache and light chills,” he said, but his condition worsened over the following days, and he was admitted to the hospital. At the time, 20 other people in the Sheriff’s Office had tested positive for the virus.

Nearly a month after he was hospitalized, Napoleon succumbed to the virus.

Raphael Washington, then a deputy chief, worked in an office that shared a wall with that of his commanding officer.

“I had to go pick up his car from the hospital that had been there when he drove himself there,” recalled Washington, who was named sheriff after Napoleon’s death.

Washington described his predecessor as more than a colleague. He was “a friend and a brother.”

Washington told Michigan Radio that seeing the devastation COVID caused his colleagues and their families, including the loss of friends and relatives, has made him a strong proponent of efforts to mitigate and prevent the spread of the virus, including vaccines.

“I don't have to be convinced that the vaccine is what we need,” he said. “And so I do try to push that out.” 

Of the 64 people who replied to our questions, 13 people — or one-fifth of respondents — said they asked for the vaccine but still hadn’t received it when we compiled responses earlier this year.

Quincey Lockett is one of those 13 people. The 26-year-old was booked in May 2020. Just a few weeks earlier, he’d lost a close friend to COVID — one who was just a few years older than him. Getting detained in a building where social distancing would be all but impossible made Lockett fear for his life — and want to take any possible measures to protect himself.

“I asked for the vaccine the first [time] they came round and said they was offering it,” Lockett recalled in a phone call. But he learned that the jail was only providing the single-dose shot developed by pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson.

This was the spring of 2021, a time when the news was flooded with warnings about the side effects of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Lockett talked to family members and decided to wait until the Moderna or Pfizer-manufactured double-dose shots became available to those in custody. (According to the Wayne County Health Department, the Moderna vaccine was offered to inmates beginning in May of 2021 and the Pfizer vaccine was offered starting in July.)

Then, Lockett came down with COVID.

“It was like a wave,” he said, describing how the virus moved from cell to cell and unit to unit through the third floor of the Old Jail in the fall of 2021.

Knowing the devastation the virus had laid on people close to him, Lockett fell into a spiral of anxiety. He recalled being so sick he could barely stand as pain rippled through his body.

A couple days later, Lockett’s mother Edna Perry got a call around 3 a.m. It was from someone in her son’s unit, telling her that Quincey was struggling to breathe.

Edna Perry said the late-night call filled her with fear.

“It was even harder when nobody called to tell you nothing,” she said, referring to those who worked in the jail.

Perry was concerned that she hadn’t received any information about her son’s positive test result or his worsening bout with COVID from the jail staff or Wellpath, its contracted medical provider. She felt some relief, however, when the man who was detained in a cell near Lockett told her that her son was going to be transferred to a hospital for treatment. But that never happened. The next day, Perry got a phone call from her son saying he had been transferred to the newer, Division I Jail. He told his mother the only treatment he received came in the form of an inhaler.

“I was scared for my life,” Lockett said. When he recovered, he decided he didn’t want to risk having the same experience again, or worse. He decided to take whatever COVID-19 vaccine the jail made available to him.

But a year after he first asked for the vaccine, Lockett still has not gotten it — despite making numerous requests while incarcerated in Wayne County. First, he said he asked a nurse for a vaccine. Then, he filed a written grievance, or kite, to request one. After making a third request during a medical appointment, Lockett said that a medical worker told him he would be “called out” to get the shot, but that never happened. “They told me that the nurses there was not doing any vaccines no more at that point,” he said.

Other inmates independently told Michigan Radio that they had heard the same thing from medical staff after an initial push: that vaccines were no longer being administered.

Lockett said he believed what he heard — so much so that he was surprised when he saw that someone in a cell near his was given an immunization card a few weeks ago. Lockett said he plans to ask for the vaccine again.

The former jail health care worker we spoke to for this story suspects that the majority of those who requested a vaccine and didn’t receive it put in their requests while Wellpath was contracted to provide medical care. “It was probably forgotten,” she said, describing all the many moments in which that might have been the case if the request was made verbally to a nurse doing rounds: “The nurse has to make a note of it. Then she has to remember to check her notes, and then she has to remember to put it in the computer. And she's going to serve medication to a few hundred inmates.” Short-staffing, especially as medical workers were quarantined during COVID peaks, may also have resulted in vaccine requests being postponed, she said.

“We were strongly, strongly encouraging every inmate in the facility” to get vaccinated, said Robert Dunlap, the chief of jails in Wayne County. “Anyone that wants to be vaccinated, we will certainly offer it. In fact, we had even went around [recently] reminding individuals” that the shot was available to them.”

Both Dunlap and the Wayne County Health Department said that inmates are asked if they would like to receive the vaccine when they are booked into the jail, and are made aware that they can request the shot at any time. According to the Wayne County Health Department, 7,670 people have been booked into the jail between the time the facility first began administering vaccines in early April 2021 through April of this year. During that same period, jail authorities say 360 people have been vaccinated while incarcerated; that’s about 5% of everyone who was brought into the facility since medical providers first began administering vaccines.

“The best thing that we could do”

As the pandemic has dragged on, and many continue to wait for trial dates in a backlogged court system, at least one thing has changed for people in the Wayne County Jail.

On October 1, 2021, county officials replaced Wellpath with a different private medical provider, approving a $51 million, three-year contract with Naphcare. (Naphcare has also faced federal scrutiny and civil litigation.)

The former jail health care worker we spoke to on condition of anonymity said the change was an overwhelmingly positive one. “I can tell you that the change of health care providers was the best thing that we could do.”

Many nurses left when the contract with Wellpath ended. Napchare flew in nurses from other facilities it manages to train nurses in the Wayne County Jail. The former health care worker said the difference was stark — and processes were quickly streamlined.

Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio
A group protested in front of the jail on March 17th, 2022.

The same month that Wellpath’s contract with the Wayne County Jail system ended, it got another, more significant contract in Michigan. In October 2021, along with a private medical practice called Grand Prairie Healthcare Services, WellPath was awarded a $590 million contract to manage health care provision to all of the prisons that make up the Michigan Department of Corrections.

“That’s not justice”

Corey Holmes is tired. “I want this to be over with,” he said.

Holmes has been held in pre-trial detention — in jail, without a conviction — for more than three years now as he waits for a hearing in a court system overwhelmed with cases that have piled up during the pandemic. After contracting COVID in the spring of 2020, he believes he caught the virus a second time. He said he requested a test but did not receive one.

His main focus, though, is on getting his case resolved – and hopefully, going home.

“This process isn't a process that only affects those of us who are incarcerated in the Wayne County Jail. It is a process that also affects our loved ones. Some of us were men who were the breadwinners in our families,” Holmes said. “And of course, they miss us, they want us home and they want this process to be over.”

Every time a court date gets pushed back, he is anxious, angry and frustrated. And he dreads giving the news to his family.

“I've resisted seeking mental health [care], but I’m almost to the point where I feel like I need to talk to somebody because this process has gone on too long.”

Holmes’ next court appearance is currently set for June.

Main image illustration by Paulette Parker / Michigan Radio.

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.