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Inmates talk about living through a pandemic inside prison walls

Master Sgt. David Eichaker
Air National Guard

The state’s prisons have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 50% of Michigan’s prison inmates have been infected by the virus.

As inmate Debra McDaniel notes, "The United States wasn't even prepared for this, let alone a correctional facility."

Living through a pandemic is hard enough for most of us. But for people in prisons, where physical distancing is close to impossible, a pandemic causes an extra level of anxiety, fear, and vulnerability.

I spoke with three inmates about their experiences during the pandemic:

-Dwight Henley, age 49, serving a life sentence at Macomb Correctional Facility,

-DuJuan Quinn, age 41, whose earliest release date is 2031, is in Lakeland Correctional Facility,

-Debra McDaniel, age 39, with a parole date of next month, is in Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

I asked Dwight Henley to start off the conversation.  What has living through the pandemic been like?

Henley:  "Oh, well, where to start? It's been ....turmoil.  And it's anxiety ridden."

DuJuan Quinn: "I didn't think at first that we had anything to worry about. But once I saw it hit the East Coast, I stopped going to church to try to isolate myself. "

Debra McDaniel:  "At first it was a little, you know, like chickens running around with their heads cut off. You know, they were trying to do something, but they didn't know what they should do, seems like."

Henley: "The failure to put in the protocols, you know, to make sure that staff aren't bringing it in, that there's routine testing to keep the petri dish thing from happening is, one, a lack of resources, to a degree.  And another, we're just prisoners. 'What happens to them, happens to them. And let's just stay clear of them."

McDaniel:  "It seemed like the correction officers were treating us like we had leprosy. And the funny thing is, is they're the ones going into the world and bringing it into this prison. Yet we're the ones getting screamed at and treated -- not inhumanely -- but more poorly than we normally are."

Quinn:  "I didn't see any space created. I didn't see that. And that's the biggest thing. When we have these facilities set up like they are, you've got to create space. And the only way they create space is either open up other facilities or to start letting go people who you can deem to be safe to release into society."

McDaniel:  "Our field house, where we do exercises and work out, they turned that into like a triage center. But they were putting all these people together. So whether you were a confirmed positive or they thought you might possibly have just come in contact with somebody, they're putting you together."

Quinn:  "It was terrifying, actually, because we do have an older population here. We have a whole medical wing. It was just bad. And then, you know, people started dying left and right. It was tough to deal with."

Henley (who contracted COVID-19) "We were one of the first facilities hit.  So I had a rough time breathing for seven to ten days. Tired, a lingering cough. It was the breathing thing that was a bit scary."

Quinn (who also contracted COVID-19).  "When the headache came on, I knew it was something different. I just knew because I never experienced a headache like that, I never experienced being so physically tired. And basically, my whole unit went down just like this. (snaps fingers.)"

Henley:  "As time goes on, I'm hoping it (the pandemic) gets over with.  The level of hope seems to dwindle as time goes on. Even though we are really getting closer right now. "

Quinn:  "We're watching and listening, probably just like everybody else is wondering who's going to get the vaccination, who's going to get it first, where we come on the list.

You know, the elderly in here, they should be vaccinated as well. We all are people, we all are human. We all count. We all matter. And I don't think that we should be treated different than someone who's free."

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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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