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For families with loved ones at Baldwin's immigrant prison, coronavirus information is hard to find

Outside the North Lake Correctional Facility entrance in Baldwin.
Taylor Wizner
Interlochen Public Radio

On April 21, Interlochen Public Radio reported there were nine inmates at the North Lake Correctional Facility who tested positive with COVID-19.

Since that story was published, IPR has been unable to obtain further information about the number of inmates who are sick, who have died or recovered from the disease.

Requests from several government agencies and the private prison operator have yielded no answers.

The company that runs the Baldwin prison, GEO Group, didn’t answer questions about the number of sick prisoners. The company said in a statement it is monitoring the health of inmates who were exposed to COVID-19 positive employees.

“Any inmates who may have had exposure to the employees who tested positive will be monitored by medical staff for their health and wellbeing, consistent with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control,” the company wrote in an email.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which initially alerted reporters to the nine cases at the prison, also didn’t provide updates on sick inmates.

MDHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said further information would have to come from the prison.

“This was not intended to be a daily report and we do not have the staff availability to provide this information on a regular basis,” Sutfin wrote in an email. “We are not providing this level of detail for any other facility in the state.”

On the state's coronavirus website, MDHHS lists total cases at Michigan Department of Corrections facilities (MDOC) and Federal Correctional Institutions (FCI). The numbers are not broken down by facility.

However, the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons both break down the number of cases by facility on their websites, with one exception: The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not list any coronavirus data for its private prisons — all of which are criminal alien requirement facilities, like North Lake, that exclusively house immigrants convicted of felonies.

Over the past several weeks, the Bureau of Prisons said it won’t make that information public. The BOP said it was up to the private companies to report positive cases. But on May 5, a spokesperson said the federal government would soon be sharing data on these prisons.

“We are working to post to our website in the future the number of BOP inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 at privately contracted correctional institutions. However, these are not available on our website at this time,” a BOP spokesperson wrote in an email.

Asked when this information would be available, the BOP said it would not be online this week.

Local health departments typically assist businesses in responding to an outbreak when a “cluster of cases” are found at a single location.

District Health Department #10, oversees Lake County, where the prison is located. It has made public announcements on several cases tied to agriculture farms in Missaukee County, and named two adult care facilities dealing with outbreaks in Crawford County.

But the health department has not shared any information on the coronavirus outbreak at North Lake.

DHD#10 spokesperson Jeannine Taylor said prison cases are typically handled by corrections. She says the local health department doesn’t work with the prisons unless they ask for help or if a large number of cases appear at the prison.

The absence of information comes during an unsettling time for the families of North Lake Correctional inmates, as coronavirus spreads in other prisons throughout the country.

In interviews and emails, family members share fears that their loved ones are being exposed to the virus when they are transported, isolated in a small room with a cellmate and while showering. One inmate told a family member he worries the guards don’t sanitize the phones after calls are made.

Meanwhile, inmates also report seeing sick prisoners isolated in their cells, coughing or experiencing respiratory distress, but who don’t get medical treatment.

GEO did not respond to questions about prisoners’ health, but directed IPR to statements on its website. There, GEO Group says all of its inmates have 24/7 access to healthcare. The company also says inmates are able to regularly wash their hands with clean water and soap and employees sanitize high-contact areas.

But for Victoria Limon’s brother, 45-year-old North Lake inmate Ricardo Limon, the fear of exposure to the coronavirus is immense.

She says her brother has a weakened immune system from contracting Valley Fever, a fungal infection, at the last prison he was held.

“Being transferred to the North Lake facility having those problems already. They were supposed to be taken care of and they got put where they are risking their health,” Limon says. “I know if he were ever to get the coronavirus, it would probably be fatal for him.”

Limon says she wishes the government would deport her brother, who has about three years left on his sentence, rather than leave him potentially exposed to the virus in the prison.

“They should have sent us to Mexico,” she says. “If they don’t have the services for us to be here, they don’t want us here, why keep us here like this? This is inhumane. This is not ok.”

Limon says she holds her breath every time her brother takes a while to call her. Right now, she says she doesn’t have the relief of knowing the number of COVID-19 cases at North Lake.

IPR's Taylor Wizner is passionate about empowering communities through solid reporting.
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