It has been widely reported in the news recently about the fears of what could happen with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading inside of jails and prisons. There has been much talk but little action nation wide to reduce the population density by releasing non-violent offenders and those with high risk factors such as the elderly or those with sever chronic health issues. Defense attorneys and prisoner advocates along with some District Attorneys have petitioned the courts and the various state correction agencies to act on humanitarian grounds to little effect so far.
In Michigan, the MDOC itself can do little to reduce prison population due to Truth in Sentencing. This policy was enacted by a vote of the people and would require a super-majority in both houses of the legislature to overturn. Michigan is about the only state in the country which enacted this draconian punishment back in the 1980s that still persists in this failed deterrence strategy. It was part of the Tough on Crime policing laws, where inmates would not be considered for parole until they had reached their Earliest Release Date (ERD). Combined with harsh sentencing guidelines Truth in Sentencing caused an explosion in the incarceration rate which lead to the current over crowing situation.
Now Michigan prisons are full of inmates serving long indeterminate sentences. While your Earliest Release Date (ERD) might be 7 years, your maximum release date could be 15 years. The result is that there is no guarantee that you will qualify for parole after serving 7 years. There is no good time or disciplinary credit unless you were sentenced before Truth in Sentencing. Longer sentences and harsher policies like the 3-Strike law mean that the number of older prisoners has increased significantly as a percentage of the total inmate population. This runs counter to the evidence that people typically age out of crime and the fact that the number of older convicts going to prison for the first time is significantly lower than for those in their teens, twenties or thirties.
Inmates in general tend to be in poorer health than the general population. This is due in part to the large number of older inmates, but also to the number of inmates with underlying medical conditions, mental conditions, and/or addictions. Combine this with poor health care which has been the subject of oversight by a federal judge, the result is that even in good times there are needless deaths due to inadequate treatment, medication and therapy.
It’s been known for many years that jails and prisons are a breeding ground for disease. Tuberculosis, Hepatitis, HIV, MERSA, Norovirus, and Influenza, just to name a few, have been of significant concern. In the MDOC, Hepatitis and Influenza vaccinations are available. TB skin tests are performed routinely. Prior to release all parolees are tested for HIV. Every year there are individual prisons quarantined due to an epidemic of one sort or another.
It’s been well documented that prisons are severely overcrowded. Even with falling rates of incarceration in Michigan, the MDOC closes prisons rather than reduce population density because of the cost savings. Housing units that were originally designed to hold 80 men now contain 160. Single beds were replaced with bunk beds. Desks were removed to make room for additional lockers. This effectively reduced the square footage allotted per inmate by 50%. Infrastructure could not be updated so toilets, sinks and showers have double the utilization. This happened all across the MDOC.
In prison, access to cleaning chemicals is limited. The cleaning chemicals available are highly diluted because concentrated chemicals can be weaponized. Heavy bathroom utilization combined with unsanitary conditions due to inadequate custodial maintenance and poor personal hygiene by many inmates, leads to a breeding ground for germs, bacteria and mold. Add in outdated, inoperative ventilation and old plumbing subject to frequent backups, you have a recipe for disaster.
While I was incarcerated, I experienced a norovirus quarantine. It was the only time when dilute bleach was made available for the inmates to clean their areas of control. 5-gallon buckets of bleach water were put out with a few rags and was moved from cube to cube down the hall. The problem was that not everyone participated in the housekeeping and I’m not sure how well the common areas of the units were cleaned.
Like most of the epidemics in prison, personal hygiene plays a big part in transmission. Hand washing isn’t widely practiced and there are lots of places where there is no access to soap. Places like the school building bathroom frequently did not have soap, let alone toilet paper. Hand sanitizer is not available because it contains alcohol. The mouthwash doesn’t contain alcohol either. Alcohol pads from medical used by the insulin dependent diabetics are contraband. The basic tools used to combat the spread of infectious disease are either not practiced adequately by inmates, poorly implemented and executed by staff, or prevented by policy as security risks.
Policy says that soap made by MSI will be supplied to inmates as needed. That didn’t mean that soap was always available. Housing units generally only order a certain amount based on their budget as determined by the unit counselor. State soap didn’t have the best reputation, so if you had the funds in your trust account, you would order soap from the commissary.
Recent news from the MDOC website reports that Michigan State Industries (MSI) is making masks and other PPE for officers and inmates. Like the recommendation from the CDC that the general population should be wearing cloth masks when going out in public, the MDOC has begun distributing masks to inmates in prisons with confirmed cases of COVID-19. This fails to take the rest of the CDC guidelines into account. Inmates can’t separate themselves from others who might be showing the initial symptoms of the virus. Instead staff must make the determination to quarantine the inmate pending the result of a confirmation test.
Masks without the proper way to clean your hands before and after handling them or being able to properly clean and sanitize them, can lead to contamination. If anything, they will provide a sense of false security. When doctors, nurses and first responders who have been trained in proper PPE handling techniques are getting sick with the virus, what chance do inmates have? In an article I read recently the author concluded that wearing a cloth mask was better than wearing nothing. Hardly a strong recommendation, but still better than simply pulling up your tee-shirt over your nose which has been shown to provide almost no protection.
At the time of writing this article the number of inmates in the MDOC with confirmed COVID-19 cases was 338 with 2 deaths. Thirteen of 29 prisons had confirmed cases. Thirteen other prisons in the MDOC had tested at least one inmate with negative results. These numbers have doubled in a week and appear to be following the same trends experienced in the general population. Changes such as suspending visits, stopping outside volunteers or tours from entering the prisons did not prevent the virus from entering prison. One prisoner in the upper peninsula contracted the virus while he was in the local hospital where COVID-19 positive patients were being treated. Inmates arriving from county jail may have also brought in the virus. However, the most likely avenue for the virus to get into prison was through the staff.
Staff entering prisons must undergo a daily temperature check and answer a series of questions about possible exposure as they enter for work. If this is anything as thorough as their inspections for drugs, cellphones or other contraband, then it won’t be long before the virus is in every prison. This is serious and in addition to 142 staff members testing positive there have been two staff deaths reported. COVID-19 is a silent killer that is often contagious before any symptoms become apparent.
There have been a number of unusual facts about this Corona virus that are particularly troubling. First there the observation that the virus kills more men than women. Then there is the issue around how the virus is affecting brown and black communities and individuals at alarmingly higher rates than in the general population. Also, the elderly and those with underlying health issues are specifically vulnerable. Finally, there is the issue of access to health care. The percentage of men significantly out numbers the number of female prisoners. There are a much higher percentage of brown and black ethnicities incarcerated than in the general population. There are a large number of inmates who are either elderly or in very poor health. Finally is the problem of prison health care even in the best of times. This will combine into a perfect storm that the MDOC and all other jails and prisons, either state or federal are not capable of handling.
When this pandemic is brought under control and life resumes its new normal, my concern is that the successful measures taken to combat the spread of this disease will be eased or rescinded altogether. That the more onerous measures such as restricting visits and access by volunteers, lock downs and restricted movement by inmates will continue. And that the lessons learned will be quickly forgotten or ignored by administrators and legislators. When it comes to corrections there is more than a tendency to cling to the failed, outdated, outmoded policies and procedures of the past. There is a conscious effort to maintain the status quo, resist change even in the face of significant pressure, and a lack of real accountability in a critical branch of government.
If you have loved ones or friends currently incarcerated- pray about them; reach out to them; speak out for them.
For information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is affecting those in jail or prison I recommend the coverage being provided by the Marshall Project website. It is the best source on the internet for daily updates of news being reported across the country the affects our loved ones and friends serving time behind bars.
For specific updates regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in the MDOC, information can be found on their website at: https://medium.com/@MichiganDOC/mdoc-takes-steps-to-prevent-spread-of-coronavirus-covid-19-250f43144337