During the Corona virus pandemic many states, including my home state of Michigan, have issued some form of Stay Home order for the general public and specifically request that people with Covid-19 or think they may have been exposed to it, to self-quarantine for some period of time. When this first started, the news was full of dire warnings and bleak statistics as the virus spread far and wide throughout the world. Over time as the news started to become more hopeful sounding with signs of flattening the curve and progress toward a vaccine and effective treatments the natives, as they say, are becoming restless.
The federal and state governments have been working, sometimes together and sometimes at odds to manage the crisis. Everything from trying to ensure that there is enough PPE for first responders to sufficient hospital beds and ventilators for the critically ill to emergency economic funds to help out individuals and business are being organized, implemented and communicated to the people to ensure the wellbeing of our nation. Not everything has gone smoothly. Mistakes have been made. With this novel coronavirus much is still to be learned about methods of transmission, who is at greatest risk and how best to protect them. Information, opinion and fake news has come from many sources to cloud the issues, second guess the experts and mislead the public about every aspect of this situation. People following the verbal ramblings of the president and other charlatans have tried unproven and dangerous treatments, which have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.
Every day there is more bad news about the economy, job losses, and the effect that the shutdown is having on businesses and individuals. The difficulties of finding basic supplies like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies coupled with social distancing requirements have made shopping a chore. Add to this the boredom that comes from running out of projects to work on and having caught up on sleep and your favorite television programs. The insanity of trying to work from home while home schooling the kids and worrying about friends and loved ones. These difficulties combined with the improving weather of spring and the social tendencies of our species have turned the occasional grumble regarding the inconvenience of the whole situation into a growing chorus of displeasure. Often the focus of this complaining is the very government which was elected to handle these types of situations if/when they occur.
Protests have been organized across the country by those who think that government has overstepped its authority by temporarily closing businesses, banning public/private gatherings, and limiting freedoms that the protesters hold near and dear. Social media outlets have been asked to police themselves regarding event notices that might be encouraging activities that are illegal during this period of declared state and national emergency. Protesters waving flags of various origins, toting assault rifles, and flaunting the social distancing advisories march in the streets exercising their rights of assembly, free-speech, and to bear arms. As the SNL skit about Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s response to the protests in Lansing said, “It’s live free or die, not live free and die.” What does open carry of assault rifles have to do with Covid-19? As one pundit said, “You can’t shoot the virus.” Any display of force is by its very nature coercive and there is no place for it in a democracy.
As with any crisis there are people trying to take advantage of the situation. While the number of major crimes decreased during the initial weeks of the pandemic those numbers are increasing again, especially as thieves target closed stores. Police departments like most first responders have been hit hard by the virus and many officers are either sick or in quarantine. This puts a strain on the police to maintain patrols in areas of high crime and respond to calls for aid by those experiencing the life-threatening symptoms of Covid-19. Police chiefs from the across the country are seen nightly on the news pleading for people to stay home, obey traffic laws, and behave themselves, sometimes to no avail.
On television the trend for talk shows is for the personalities to do their shows from home. The late-night comedians spend their time lampooning the president, life in quarantine, and the idiots who have earned their 60 seconds of infamy. The daytime shows continue to pander to celebrity, as if those who can most afford not to work can really relate to those who can’t even file for unemployment due to the overwhelming number of people applying. The poster child for this may be Ellen DeGeneres. She made a joke on her first show back after 3 weeks off that those of us who have been there found to be in unbelievably bad taste. She compared coronavirus self-isolation to being in jail. “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days, and everyone here is gay.” She has a beautiful, spacious mansion in sunny southern California, with her own green space. Social distancing is not a problem, she hosts her show from her comfy chair and her guests are all virtual.
The real situation in jails and prisons across America is slowly being revealed by investigative journalists following up on first and secondhand accounts of what life behinds bars is currently like. Every day I read at least a half a dozen articles from the Marshall Project, the New York Times, Huffington Post, USA Today, Detroit News and Free Press, The Atlantic, and the LA Times just to name a few, that clearly show that neither Ellen nor any other person not currently incarcerated live under conditions even remotely similar to those found in even the best jail. The picture that these articles paint is very bleak. Our correctional institutions were not prepared for coronavirus. Not only that but the system which they are a part of has failed to respond in a timely manner to things like the implementation of CDC guidelines on the control of infectious disease, governmental and court ordered population reduction strategies, and conducting sufficient testing to determine the true scope of infection.
Infection rates in some facilities now exceed 50% of the inmate population. In some regions, the jail or prison is the hot spot responsible for the spread of Covid-19 throughout the community at large, because of the infection rates among correction officers and staff. Prisons are typically not located in large metropolitan areas with access to hospitals capable of handling more than a few intensive care patients. The result is that inmates are filling up the ICU so that people from the community must go elsewhere. The notorious prison medical system has exacerbated the situation through callus and unsympathetic care that has resulted in the deaths of prisoners in their cells, which they claim never reported any symptoms to staff. Inmates report that medical staff do not change gloves between patients; sick inmates are not segregated from the general population immediately; and inmates with mild to moderate symptoms are told to suck it up and sent back to their cells without medications to ease their discomfort.
Attempts by the MDOC to quarantine sick/recovering inmates by setting up quarantine units in several prisons to isolate them from the general population has resulted in the spreading of Covid-19 from one prison to another which had previously been virus free. The only staff overlap between the quarantine units and the rest of the compound was the medical staff. There have also been reports that inmates working as cleaning porters have been forced to clean up after infected inmates without any PPE. The spokes person for the MDOC has repeatedly denied allegations regarding conditions inside of prisons, the same as they have for every other inmate’s complain. The response as always is that the inmates are lying and that the MDOC has everything under control. This time he will have a harder time explaining the body count.
Ohio is the only state so far that claims to be testing all its prisoners at all its facilities. Michigan to date has completed testing at one facility and is now conducting comprehensive testing at a second facility. This however does not include the correction officers or staff. At other facilities only those inmates who meet certain criteria are tested. Since this virus presents itself with such a wide range of symptoms and levels of severity, including asymptomatic infections; only complete testing of inmates and staff can identify the true number of cases. Given the scarcity of test kits available, it is not surprising that more testing has not been conducted. Unfortunately, prisoners comprise one of the most vulnerable populations alongside nursing homes and should be a priority.
Compared to the “real world” prison is a place where reality: including things like common sense, empathy, manners, personal hygiene, health care, personal space, and access to PPE is extremely limited or non-existent. ICE detainees have gone on hunger strikes for more soap and toilet paper. The federal Bureau of Prisons failed to follow the Justice Departments mandate to reduce prison populations by sending thousands of eligible prisoners home to serve out the remainder of their sentences under house arrest. Juvenile detention facilities likewise have been slow to release minors who have been deemed to pose no threat to society. Advocacy groups have been bailing out people who couldn’t afford bail and have been in jails awaiting trials, which have been postponed because the courts have significantly reduced case loads while conducting hearings remotely. In some states, even after prisons and jails went into quarantine mode, inmates were sent out on work assignments where they risked either catching the virus or spreading the virus into the community. For example, until just a few days ago inmates from the Rikers Island jail in New York were used to dig graves in a cemetery for the city’s poor.
Directions to inmates from the MDOC regarding how to protect themselves from the coronavirus have been described as confusing, contradictory, inadequate and/or misleading. The MDOC instructed MSI, its prison factory service to begin producing cloth face masks for staff and inmates. It then began to issue 3 masks each to inmates with directions to wear them whenever they leave their cells, but only at facilities which have had a positive case diagnosed. Even after the pandemic was known to be circulating in prisons, inmates are still being released on parole or probation without being tested to see if they are infected or being instructed to self-isolate for 14 days. Inmates being paroled can’t find access to critical services that are usually provided by governmental or non-profit agencies to get started in their community placement.
In March when the first signs of community spread of the virus were reported, the MDOC like most other jails and prison systems closed their visiting rooms and banned outside volunteers and program instructors from entering the facility. Internal programs like GED or mandatory programing continue with fewer inmates allowed to attend each class. Fewer inmates where allowed to go to chow at one time to promote social distancing. In the level 1 facility where I was housed, in the chow hall we had 4-man tables which barely had enough room for 4 trays. Even cutting the seating in half leaves you eating face to face with another person. In some places where the infection rates are highest the chow halls have now been closed and the food is delivered to the inmates in their cells.
To allow inmates to communicate with their family and friends prison phone companies like Global Tel Link are providing weekly free 5-minute calls to inmates. Email services like JPay have given inmates free electronic stamps to allow them to write home using the kiosk located in the housing units. This sounds like a nice gesture from companies who have made millions of dollars from selling overpriced services to inmates for years. The reality is that phones and kiosks are used by dozens of inmates daily and the limitation on the types of cleaning/disinfectant products allowed means that inmates who uses these devices put themselves at risk. Sanitizers and cleaning products containing 60% ethanol, or 70% isopropyl alcohol have been shown to be the most effective against the coronavirus however, only dilute bleach is allowed. The old technique of putting a sock over the phone may not protect you from contracting the coronavirus when you put the handset to your face.
Approximately 95% of all inmates in the US will be released back into society when they complete their sentence. Unfortunately, Covid-19 does not discriminate in who it infects. There have been numerous tragic stories reported in the news of inmates within days, weeks or months of being released who have contracted the virus and died. One of the saddest was the case of a women in jail who gave birth while on a ventilator and later died without ever getting to know her child. Another involved a man who had been incarcerated 44 years. He was convicted of murder at age 16. He had turned down parole earlier in the year, intending to ‘max out’ his sentence and leave prison a free man. Having reconsidered that decision after the pandemic started, he was scheduled to be paroled in a matter of weeks when he passed away from the virus. Technical parole violators who have been sent to jail or returned to prison have gotten sick and died.
Jails and prisons are like petri dishes which culture microorganisms. Even in the best of times they are unsanitary places full of unhygienic people. When I was in jail awaiting my court hearings there was no warm/hot water available in my cell, only cold water from the sink and shower. The soap provided was so poor that it did not foam or suds making it difficult to wash after using the bathroom or before meals. Very few people are incarcerated in single-man cells, most are crowded into dormitories with a hundred other people. Social distancing is just not an option so when one gets sick, many get sick. Getting a cold or the flu in prison is miserable, getting Covid-19 for many could be a death sentence. Knowing this, the level of fear among inmates is running extremely high.
Incarceration is a stressful situation in the best of times, now it is nearly at panic levels. Around the world and even in the US there have been prison riots over fears about Covid-19 and what it could do inside the walls. Video from a cell phone that had been smuggled into the Wayne County jail in Detroit showed inmates with their tee-shirts pulled up like masks over their faces pleading for help. Pictures of the Cook County jail showed a window with a message spelled out in toilet paper calling for help. In addition to the non-profit organizations that were bailing people out of jail, others have begun to supply soap free of charge to inmates that were not getting it otherwise. While gestures like this are appreciated, they do not address the underlying issues that are putting so many people at risk.
Since the early 2000s prison populations in many, but not all states, have been slowly but steadily decreasing. Violent crime rates with a few exceptions have also been decreasing during this time according to FBI statistics. According to a recent report from the MDOC the prisoner population in 2019 was at 96.9% of capacity. There was also a reduction of 445 beds due to prison closings that resulted from the decrease in population. What they are not telling you is that the current prison capacity is double of what they were originally designed for. I was in two different prisons with level 1 pole barns that had originally been equipped for 80 men. There were 4 men assigned to each cubical. Now there are 160 men in the housing unit and 8 men to a cube. When I was in level 2 and level 4 the cells were two-man rooms. While level 2 was designed that way, level 4 was not, they were supposed to be one-man cells with their own toilet and sink. Instead of addressing the overcrowding issue by keeping prisons open with fewer inmates the MDOC decided to maintain few prisons in order to offset cost increases while keeping its $2 Billion budget flat.
It is not a case of Monday morning quarterbacking to say that this was a fatal mistake. Many people have been speaking out about this problem for years, yet the MDOC ignored the warning signs such as outbreaks of norovirus that have resulted in prisons being quarantined on a regular basis. The sad thing is that unlike the Flint water crisis there will be no Attorney General investigation, no one will lose their jobs, and no one will be held responsible for the criminal negligence that has led to the unnecessary loss of life that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.
Having said all of this, I hope I have made my point that self-isolation at home is not like being in jail.