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Omicron hits Michigan's prisons, which rank second in nation for COVID cases

Correction: The story has been updated to clarify that current Michigan Department of Corrections employees who are former corrections officers are helping to address staffing shortages. 

Michigan has accumulated the second-highest rate of infections among the nation's state prison systems during the pandemic.

The state's COVID-19 case rate inside its prisons as of Wednesday is 893 per 1,000 inmates, nearly nine times higher than the infection rate for other Michigan residents, according to data compiled by the COVID Prison Project. It reflects confirmed positive cases among inmates and staff since COVID-19 hit the state in March 2020.

As a result, of the state's 28 prisons, 11 are on full quarantine status, meaning there's a pause on programming, in-person visitation and mingling. Another dozen facilities have at least one housing unit on quarantine, and inmates in those units can't leave except for exercise and eating, separate from other inmates. The entire housing unit must move together from the cell to the yard or to eat within capacity limits, said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"Every housing unit moves together and tests together, so when we saw positive cases stem from different portions of the prison, that's when the chief medical officer can direct testing for everyone in that facility," he said.

"We're one of the only industries in the state aside from hospitals that are now requiring double masking by everyone, inmates and officers. Any outside contractors need a COVID test before entering facilities."

COVID-19 has especially raged through Michigan's prisons in the two weeks since Christmas, and sequencing found the highly contagious omicron variant at the Women's Huron Valley facility and Charles E. Egeler Reception and Guidance Center in Jackson. 

On Dec. 1, the Michigan Department of Corrections said there were 336 cases among its population. By Dec. 29, case counts rose to 497 cases and then jumped to 1,930 by Wednesday.

Gautz said the nearly 5% infection rate among inmates is the highest it has been in more than a year, but well below the thousands of prisoners that were infected in fall 2020.

"We suspected an omicron outbreak at two of our prisons because of a spike in cases after only having 100 or so cases (prior to the winter). Then it jumped at Christmas," he said. "At the time, we could only assume omicron. Numbers were so unlike what we've seen for a while."

The prison system has had more than 29,700 cases among inmates and 6,758 among staff, as well as 151 inmate deaths and 11 staff deaths since the pandemic reached Michigan nearly two years ago.

Michigan's prison system is among the highest case rates in the nation because the department is doing more testing than other states, Gautz said. The state has tested more inmates than any other at 1.2 million, according to data by the COVID Prison Project. It is followed by Illinois with 912,430 tests and Texas with 893,373 tests. 

"Because we do more testing, we get lumped in with state comparisons, and we end up looking like the outsider for mass testing of prisoners," he said. "We have to continuously test to know where it's popping up and protect our population from the potential spread."

Researchers, meanwhile, argue overcrowding and lax protocols in prisons and jails haven't changed enough in the 22 months of the pandemic — whether in Michigan or other states. Michigan's prisons are also experiencing mass vacancies of correctional officers and nurses, among other staff, which are compounded by quarantining officers infected by COVID.  

"Jails and prisons continue to be overlooked relevant to mitigation resources," said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, associate professor of social medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill and the lead investigator and co-founder of the COVID Prison Project.

"Not enough testing capacity is on hand in most carceral facilities. Ongoing vaccination and booster plans are necessary. Many carceral systems deployed one-time or short-term vaccine campaigns and then abandoned them. But long-term planning is necessary."

Nearly 70% of the state's roughly 32,200 inmates are fully vaccinated and 10,000 booster doses have been distributed, as of Friday, Gautz said. That vaccination rate is higher than Michigan's general population at 57%. The situation is not unique to Michigan. 

The department has spent nearly a year pushing the benefits of vaccines for inmates, Gautz said. "The warden's team talks to the importance of vaccination and boosters, especially at the women's prisons. He's getting a lot more kites (letters) from inmates that they want the vaccine more now with omicron circulating," he said. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic in Michigan, the Egeler Reception Center has recorded the most cases at 3,759 and currently has 176 active cases. The most inmate deaths from the virus at a single facility, 25, occurred at Lakeland Correctional in Coldwater.

The Egeler Reception Center is visited by every adult man who's sentenced to prison, and it's home to the state's largest prison health center, Gautz said.

"That's where all of our sickest and most infirm or sometimes elderly prisoners go to for medical treatment," said Gautz, adding there is a hospice program there as well. "Lakeland is the prison that houses the vast majority of our elderly prisoners. They have a high concentration of prisoners who are 50 to 90 years old. There are higher numbers at those prisons based on the medical conditions that the prisoners there have."

In December, MDOC saw the highest number of in-person visitors who attempted to enter before testing positive for COVID-19.

"We've seen spikes from the community as we require all in-person visitors to have a rapid test on-site," said Gautz, adding 29 visitors who tested positive in December were denied entry.

Five inmates are hospitalized with the virus, and they are unvaccinated, he said.

Since March 2020, the COVID Prison Project has tracked 2,740 inmate deaths and 256 staff deaths across the nation from the virus. The project is a group of public health scientists who created a public database on the status of COVID-19 within the nation's correctional facilities. 

Alaska's prison system leads the country at 932 cases per 1,000 inmates, and Rhode Island is third at 840 per 1,000 inmates. 

On Friday, Michigan recorded its highest daily average since the start of the pandemic at more than 20,000 new cases daily. On Monday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 4,581 adults were hospitalized with confirmed infections, the highest number during the pandemic so far. Statewide, 33% of tests are coming back positive.

Vacancies vs. vaccines

The state's prison system, like many industries, is suffering staffing shortages. There is a 40% vacancy rate for nurses and the department is down about 800 corrections officers, Gautz said. Fully staffed, the department has approximately 6,000 officers.

"Some have no vacancies and some like the women's prison have 70 vacancies and then another 30 officers got COVID," said Gautz, who added the department is hiring. 

While officers are no longer traveling from facility to facility, there is a volunteer program to place officers at nearby prisons when they are needed.

Staff are tested weekly and are to report symptoms they may have. There is no mandate for corrections officers to be vaccinated, and Gautz said he did not have a percentage of officers who were vaccinated.

"We've had to bring staff in from other facilities, having employees who used to be officers but have been promoted to other positions, are now working shifts as officers again to assist," he said. "Vacancies will lead to mandated overtime, but COVID is the real culprit — several hundred workers tested positive over the last few days, and officers who have a spouse or family members that test positive have to quarantine."

Considering the growth of omicron, it's stemming from outside the prison, said Ira Memaj, a Wayne State University graduate with a master's in public health from Columbia University.

"Not having vaccine mandates (for officers) makes the prison population vulnerable to contracting the virus. The staff is more exposed and any cases of omicron originated outside the walls," said Memaj, who is working toward her Ph.D. in health policy at the College University of New York. "In prison, you might have three people in a cell designed for one person. There are no strategies to make sure patients are being isolated."

"We don’t know how much PPE they have," Memaj said. "Let’s suppose they do have masks. That can only do so much. It’s not going to prevent you from contracting the virus, especially in conditions of overcrowding, poor ventilation and subpar medical care."

Jail conditions debated

Attorney Loren Dickstein of Southfield-based Lewis & Dickstein law offices said one of his clients, a first-time offender accused of assault with intent to do bodily harm, spent 10 months in the Oakland County Jail awaiting trial when he was infected with the virus.

"And if I recall correctly, they gave him Motrin. That was all they had," Dickstein said. 

The man was ultimately sentenced to time served and probation. "We argued for bond for 10 months. The prosecution insisted that the Oakland County Jail was taking all the proper precautions," Dickstein said.

Dickstein said he's filed numerous motions regarding incarceration and COVID-19, but the response from prosecutors is that jails have it under control.

“My clients tell me that’s far from the truth. They tell me they get new masks maybe once a month, at best," Dickstein said. "There’s no way for individuals in jail to maintain social distancing when they’re in cells. A lot of them talk about what it’s like when they’re getting food. They’re shoulder to shoulder. It’s a hot topic. I have clients I know are suffering who’ve gotten COVID more than once while incarcerated."

Oakland County Undersheriff Curtis Childs said there are more than 850 inmates lodged in the county jail and the number of positive cases fluctuates each day. He didn't have the active case count on hand Saturday. 

"Our non-vaccinated percentage is higher than our vaccinated percentage," Childs said.

Protocols remain the same based on federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health department guidelines, he said.

"Quarantining new arrests, separate housing for COVID-positive, separate housing for symptomatic, extra cleaning throughout the facility, limited movement inside the facility, consistent staff testing and regular testing of people lodged in Oakland County Jail," he said.

Michigan doesn't compile COVID-19 case results from county or city jails, health department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said. The state tracks outbreaks, of which there are currently 19 for all jails, prisons and detention centers.

"A lack of data for incarcerated people has become a huge problem. Without transparency, we can’t provide solutions," Memaj said.

What can be done?

Michigan's prison population is at the lowest the MDOC has recorded in more than 30 years, Gautz said. In pre-pandemic 2019, the state's prison population was 38,000 prisoners, which dropped to 33,635 by early 2021. At its highest, the state housed 51,515 prisoners in 2006.

Regardless, concerns about overcrowding in U.S. prisons haven't changed since the start of the pandemic, Brinkley-Rubinstein said.

"Overcrowded, under-resourced facilities that are filled with people who have other chronic illnesses is a perfect storm for large COVID outbreaks. And, if there are outbreaks in carceral facilities in your neighborhood, then it increases the risk of outbreaks in your communities," she said. "One of the best ways to mitigate risk in carceral facilities and in the community is to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated."

Dickstein said arguing the danger of incarceration "falls on deaf ears."

"The biggest shame of it all is that there are measures courts can take to ensure the safety of the community. GPS tethers. Moderate cash bond. Home detention orders," he said.

Memaj pointed to Oregon and California, saying their efforts to decrease incarceration are proven effective.

"Nationally, a lot of prisons are reporting 90% capacity. That includes minor offenses including marijuana and people that could not pay bail. Why are we continuing to overcrowd prisons in a global emergency?" Memaj said. "Lawmakers, judges, activists, public health officials. There needs to be a collaborative effort here.

"Studies say that decarceration strategies prevented about 80% of virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths," she said. "It’s incredible when you think about it."