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A "tidal wave" of COVID-19 could be approaching Michigan prisons

Professor Kevin Corconan teaches philosophy to student inmates
Mercedes Mejia
Michigan Radio

Temujin Kensu is an inmate at Macomb Correctional Facility, which on Friday reported three confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates.

He says many of the things that people outside the prison system can do to try to ward off infection are difficult or simply not possible for him and fellow inmates.

Take hand washing. Inmates get one hotel-sized bar of soap each week, he says, but there's no soap in the bathrooms. He says corrections officers come along every few days or so, spraying a bleach solution here and there.  

Kensu says the prison is also making a show of social distancing. They've closed the library, and the gym.

"Then they'll call chow lines and we all walk over in a mob together," says Kensu. "We go to health care together, we go to school calls together, we go to everything together and then we go to yard."

Kensu says it's a dangerous situation, especially for him. He has a seriously compromised immune system. But he can't complain to the corrections officers. 

"If I say anything, all they're going to do is throw me in segregation and leave me in the hole for a year," he says.

Michigan Radio spoke with Kensu two days before the cases were confirmed at Macomb Correctional. 

There are now 24 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates in eight of Michigan's state prisons. There are nine confirmed COVID-19 cases among corrections officers.

"My fear is in a place like this, if once we get it, it's going to run rampant," Kensu said.

Dr. Homer Venters has the same fear. He's an epidemiologist at the New York University College of Global Public Health, and the former chief medical officer for the New York jail system.

"I think that most of our governors and our policy makers and certainly the CDC haven't yet contemplated how horrific it's going to be in terms of people dying who don't need to die," he says.

Venters is also president of Community Oriented Correction Health Services, a non-profit seeking better coordination of care for inmates between the in-prison health care system and the outside health care system.

He says the main thing prisons should be doing, they're mostly not doing.

"The primary thing is to get these facilities less crowded, and particularly less full of people who have the risk factors for serious illness and death," he says.

Venters says state prisons also aren't preparing to swiftly move large numbers of very sick inmates to outside hospitals, and hospitals are not preparing for such an influx, either. He fears a deadly fast spiral of COVID-19 in prisons among inmates, as well as staff.

And without enough staff, you have to do lockdowns, an extreme hardship for inmates. 

"What you do is you create a really toxic atmosphere that can quickly turn violent."

Byron Osborn is board president for the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union that represents prison workers.  

Osborn says the Department of Corrections appears to be taking the right steps, but those steps are limited by the nature of prisons. 

He says Macomb Correctional inmate Temujin Kensu's assertion that there's not enough soap is not true.

"But that's not the problem," he says. "The problem is the ability to actually distance people inside the facility, that's where the problem lies."

Osborne also says there's already a staffing shortage in Michigan prisons. COVID-19 is going to make it even worse.

He seems a little fatalistic about the situation, calling what's ahead a "tidal wave."

"It's the nature of the beast. I mean, we know that's what we're going into. In a perfect world you would keep this type of virus from getting in to the system, but... too late," he says.

Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz says they can't simply release non-violent offenders, as prisoner advocates want.

Commutations by the governor take months, and there are currently no public hearings on lifer or commutation cases before the state parole board.  And state law bans release of prisoners before minimum sentences are served, Gautz says.

But Gautz say many steps have been taken to slow the spread of COVID 19, including no outside visitors allowed in prisons since March 13, sharply reduced transfers of inmates among prisons, and limiting gatherings of groups of inmates and staff alike.

Gautz says there is also a contingency plan at every prison for segregating sick inmates from others – in some cases, by re-opening units inside prisons that were closed because the prison population has been falling.

"And then we have other facilities, probably a dozen or more around the state, that also can accommodate incoming prisoners if need be," he says.

But for the most part, it appears those contingency plans will only go into effect once cases start to rise sharply.

Homer Venters, the epidemiologist, says by then, it could be too late.

Correction:  An earlier version of this story said the state parole board is not meeting.  It is meeting on regular paroles, but not on life sentence or commutation matters.

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Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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