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Lawsuit alleges "cruel and unusual punishment" in state prisons during pandemic

cell block in a prison
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

The coronavirus is rapidly spreading in some Michigan prisons, especially Lakeland Correctional Facility, Parnell Correctional Facility, Cotton Correctional Facility, Macomb Correctional Facility, and the Women's Correctional Facility.

Forty-one inmates in Michigan prisons have died of COVID-19 as of April 30. 1,412 others have tested positive for COVID-19.

There could be hundreds, if not thousands, more who have been infected. 

The MDOC has only tested all inmates at one prison, Lakeland Correctional Facility, and found that 80% of those who tested positive were showing no symptoms at the time they received a test. More than half of the prison's inmates are infected with COVID-19.

MDOC is now testing all inmates at Cotton Correctional, with results expected by the end of the week.  

A new federal class action lawsuit alleges the Michigan Department of Corrections is violating inmates' constitutional rights by failing to take necessary steps to protect prisoners, including not following CDC guidelines for prisons during the coronavirus pandemic.

Daniel Manville is director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law. He says the MDOC has been playing catch-up in its response to the pandemic, rather than being proactive.

"And here the catching up can result in numerous people dying or having long term adverse medical complications because MDOC did not act," says Manville. "They weren't proactive. You don't wait until your house burns down before you call the fire department."

The lawsuit alleges that social distancing is not being enforced in multiple state prisons, with infected prisoners in some cases walking within three feet of other inmates. Inmates in some prisons have been moved into day use rooms, where they sleep within three feet of each other.

Inmate plaintiffs say in the state's "pole barn" style of prisons, infected inmates are being kept on one side of the pole barn, and non-infected on the other - with only a 5-foot barrier in between the two.

"Many years ago, we sued because they would have smoking prisoners on one side of the pole barn prisons, and non-smoking on the other," says Manville. "Well, smoke can travel over a 5-foot barrier and so can this virus."

Other allegations in the lawsuit allege that soap and cleaning supplies are being rationed, and little or no cleaning of shared items such as telephones is being conducted in between each use.

The lawsuit says in some cases, inmates have been quarantined inside their small 10 x 12 or 10 x 20 foot units with bunkmates that had tested positive, rather that moved to another unit.

In one case, an inmate says a corrections officer continued to work, with no period of self-isolation, after he had been exposed to another corrections officer who had tested positive. Other allegations include corrections officers failing to wear PPE, or failing to change PPE in between handling infected and non-infected inmates.

Manville says among other immediate steps, the MDOC should reopen seven cell blocks at the prison in Jackson. He says the units have the capacity to house several hundred prisoners, either those who are infected, or those who have no symptoms. He says the Michigan National Guard could be called in to help transfer prisoners to make conditions safer for all.

MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz says the lawsuit is based on hearsay, and says "we have been following CDC and MDHHS guidelines all along. We are focused on serious issues right now and lawsuits like this will be resolved in the courts in due time."

The MDOC has a website where it posts information about steps it has taken in response to the pandemic, along with daily totals of inmates and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19, or died of it.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to force changes as soon as possible. Attorney Manville says he hopes to get a hearing before a judge in the next ten days.

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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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