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Inmate complaints about subpar sanitation persist as COVID-19 cases soar

Image of a prison fence
Shayan Sanyal/flickr

Updated 2:28 on 4/7/20 to reflect increase in cases 

COVID-19 cases continue to increase rapidly in some Michigan prisons.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 10 prisons now have at least one confirmed COVID-19 case, and at the two most affected prisons, Parnall Correctional Facility and Macomb Correctional Facility, the number of cases is spiking, with a high percentage of positive test results out of those tested.

Of the 129 inmates tested at Parnall Correctional, 119 tested positive for COVID-19.

Of the 66 inmates tested at Macomb Correctional, 55 tested positive for COVID-19.

Overall, 107 corrections officers and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, and two have died from it. One inmate has also died of the disease.

Consistent complaints by inmates of inadequate social distancing, and lack of access to basic sanitation, continue to be denied by the MDOC.  Inmates say they are not given enough soap, let alone other cleaning supplies to disinfect surfaces.

Cameron Tietz, who is housed at Chippewa Correctional in the U.P., said proper cleaning supplies did eventually arrive. But he says then this happened.

Well today an officer named [name redacted] came in and he tells us 'no, I don’t care what they said, you’re not using the bleach to clean with.' He took all of it and dumped it down the drain, and then smashed everyone of the bottles and threw them into the trash can. Then they also got us wipes to clean the phones after every use like the governor says. But he says 'no we are not allowed to use them,' (and that) he hopes we all catch the virus and die. They are taking our toilet paper and smuggling it home, and not giving us our allotted amounts. It’s getting bad.

Joel Williams at Muskegon Correctional writes:

Pursuant to what was handed down from Lansing, they removed quite a bit of money from our prisoner benefit fund to acquire bleach, hand sanitizer and gloves, which we have seen none of. They took the hand sanitizer dispenser unit…They haven’t provided anything that was handed down from that directive from Lansing, nothing. They are giving us absolutely nothing.

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz denied the reports in an email.

Early last month we ramped up production at our soap factory where our cleaning supplies are also made. Our facilities have ample cleaning supplies and wardens are constantly reminded to check their inventories and order what they need so they don’t even come close to running out.
All facilities have and use bleach. Muskegon previously was not using bleach daily, but as of this week, it will be. It previously was only using bleach for deep cleanings.
Each prison sets an amount of soap to be given to prisoners, typically between 2-4 bars per prisoner and each facility is to also have enough on hand that whenever a prisoner requests more, they are to be given it.

Meanwhile, spaces normally used for day purposes at Macomb Correctional are now being converted to quarantine quarters for inmates who may have been exposed to COVID-19.  

Macomb inmate Dwight Henley says the situation there is deteriorating.

The cases have surpassed 50. Three guys have been hospitalized for severe (COVID-19) infection. This place is housing guys in dayrooms. One guy tested positive today in the 1-unit day room, so the other 10-15 guys were relocated to building 300-school building. The problem is much worse, however. Many prisoners are refusing to report their symptoms fearing isolation and moving. Although I can not verify this, one staff said not all guys on quarentne are getting tested. They are simply being quarantined for a period of time and then placed back into population.

The Michigan Department of Corrections says it is following the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services protocol for testing. If a prisoner has symptoms and meets the criteria for testing, the MDOC will seek permission from the local health department in the county the prison is in to conduct a test utilizing a test kit. A limited number of test kits have been distributed to all MDOC facilities, but can only be used after the MDHHS authorizes the test.

MDOC says it is urging prisoners to notify healthcare staff if they are sick.  The department's website says the prisoner who died of COVID-19 did not let anyone know he was ill, and he died at the hospital after being found unresponsive in his cell.

The department also says it is distributing three cloth masks to every prison inmate in Michigan; final distribution is expected Friday.  Inmates have been told in an email they must wear the masks at all times unless they are sleeping or showering.

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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