By Bart Hawley
(April 19, 2020 9:46 PM) What was once known as “The World’s Largest Walled Prison” now has gained notoriety as the hotbed of COVID-19 infections in the Michigan prison system. Parnall Correctional Facility, which occupies a portion of the former Michigan State Prison, currently has 164 positive COVID-19 prisoners and 68 COVID-19 positive staff members. There have been 5 deaths among inmates. With a prisoner population of 1,446, the infection rate is 11.3%. Not all states are reporting case numbers at individual prisons, but among those that are, Parnall has one of the highest infection rates in U.S. state prisons.
Throughout the country, there are prison and jail facilities with larger numbers of positive cases. New York City’s Rikers Island facility has 364 positive cases out of a population of 4,012, Throughout the federal prison system there are approximately 500 positive cases. The prison with the highest rate of infection and the largest number of cases in the United States is Marion (Ohio) Correctional Institution with 1,828 positive inmates out of a population of approximately 2,500. Ohio’s total positive COVID-19 prison case number is 2,400 as of April 19. Ohio began posting numbers this past week and the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is now conducting mass testing of all staff and inmates at Marion and two other facilities.
According to the Jackson County Health Department and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, prison case numbers are not included in the county tabulations. In addition to Parnall, there are 105 positive cases at other MDOC Jackson facilities: 61 at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, 18 at Duane Waters Health Center and 26 at Charles E. Egeler Reception and Guidance Center. Added together with Jackson County’s case count of 244, Jackson County has 513 cases. Rashmi Travis, Jackson County Health Department Health Officer, said, “We have been working with the prison facilities to reduce and mitigate the spread of disease. We have also been working in partnership with the health system to help prison employees gain access to testing.”
|Inmate Population||Inmates Tested||Positive Inmates||Positive Staff|
|Egeler RGC/Duane Waters||1241||85||44||6|
|Jackson Regional Warehouse||3|
Health officials worry that the virus can spread beyond the prison walls. Dr. Donna O’Neill, Infectious Disease and Internal Medicine specialist with the Patient Infectious Infusion Center of Jackson told JTV News, “ I think we need to pay attention to what’s happening in the prisons. Although their numbers aren’t included in the Jackson numbers, it will indirectly affect our numbers because there are a lot of people who work in the prisons. I think the numbers are falsely low because we’re lacking testing. The prison is going to be the game-changer. How we do is going to be dependent on what happens there.”
The Michigan Department of Corrections, the Michigan Corrections Officers union and corrections officers are all in agreement on the reasons for the high number of infections at Parnall. They are:
Physical Layout. Parnall is composed of three pole barn buildings and an older portion of the original Michigan State Prison. The pole barn buildings hold more than half the facility’s prisoners in open bay settings. Eight men share a cube with partial walls and no doors. The rest of the population is in single-man cells with open bars and no solid doors.
Not Enough Social Distancing. Shared facilities, like exercise yard, bathrooms, and chow hall all require prisoners to be in close proximity to one another. The facility is now limiting the number of prisoners going to the chow hall at one time and is spending more effort on social distancing education. The facility now has labels and cones up in the medication lines and in the chow hall to better illustrate social distancing.
Lack of Testing. Prisoners are tested by MDOC when they have symptoms. Until recently, MDOC staff were required to get tested on their own (through their local hospital or testing site). The MCO union says they are working to make testing more available to staff.
Positive Inmates Not Reporting. As the virus was impacting the facility, sick prisoners were afraid to come forward. Once prisoners are identified through testing they are relocated to quarantine. Byron Osborn, MCO President said “prisoners don’t want to be moved so they tend not to come forward. Prisoners’ routines are very important to them. They don’t want to disrupt their schedule, routine, relationships, or their space.”
Additionally, corrections officers have told JTV News there is a lack of personal protective equipment. One officer, who did not want to be identified, said, “At first we were not allowed masks for fear of “scaring or startling inmates”. Once inmates and staff began to get sick, they then allowed staff to bring their own. Since then our union president was able to secure face masks for all staff from a Michigan company.”
As for the high number of employees testing positive, Osborn said, “The explosion of staff infections are due to the same reasons the prisoner cases spread. The physical layout of the facility contributes to the spread. Short of testing everyone, sick prisoners were isolated, but it was too late. We have been playing catch up ever since the infection started.”
MCO President Osborn says adequate personal protection equipment and more testing are required to stop the spread. “We believe it is the state’s obligation that all staff and all prisoners be provided with N95 masks.” Osborn says there is a shortage of the N95 masks. The union has purchased surgical style masks and those are being used along with cloth masks by both staff and prisoners. “The intentions are good and helpful, but we don’t believe they are adequate,” said Osborn.
Osborn and corrections officers told JTV the pressure and stress on both staff and prisoners is high. “The most stressful part is the unknown, we wear masks and gloves but we wonder if this virus is going to attach itself to our clothing or boots and be brought home to our families,” said one officer. “Many staff are staying in campers in their driveways, using hotels that the state is paying for, and some have asked family members to care for their children since this all began.”
Chris Gautz, Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman said, “Some employees have chosen to stay in places like campers but they can now stay in hotels for free if they work at Parnall, Cotton or RGC (Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center). The Director (Heidi E. Washington) worked out arrangements and the ability for the department to pay for these hotel stays so staff don’t have to worry about bringing the virus home with them. Local hotels have been great to work with in offering reduced rates.”
Because of the high number of staff infections, employees have been brought in from units outside Jackson. Once a staff person tested positive, or was identified as having close contact with a positive person, they were required to go home and self-quarantine. “What’s troubling for us is staff being sent home and using their own leave time,” said Osborn.
Osborn says mitigation efforts the public is following, like increasing social distancing, are inherently difficult in a prison setting. “The facility is limiting opportunity to congregate and continually educating the prison population on the importance of following the safety protocols.” he said.
Everyone JTV spoke with agreed that the staff is taking this seriously and working hard to keep prisoners, staff and the community safe.
MDOC spokesman Gautz said “The staff at Parnall continue to do everything they can to limit the spread.” One of the corrections officers told JTV, “Staff are trying to make the best of the situation. They are amazing, having the Absconder Recovery Unit along with the Jackson Area Transportation Officers helping at Parnall while many are out sick has been amazing, never hear them complain, they come in and help out wherever they are needed. Staff that are not uniformed officers have stepped up and helped in many ways to keep things running. We have a great team of staff and officers who really look out for one another.”
Once a prisoner is confirmed positive, they are re-located to a quarantine facility and positive prisoners are kept together. “Early on, the department isolated prisoners in an empty housing unit at Cotton,” said Osborn. “Called the K Unit, the building sits outside the secure perimeter of Cotton. Here positive COVID-19 prisoners were relocated from other facilities.”
After a prisoner recovers, they are then taken to a step-down facility. Gautz said, “A positive aspect is that 58 of their 164 cases have been medically cleared and are no longer contagious and do not have symptoms. They are now at the step down unit at our prison in Adrian.” There are currently three facilities in the state serving as isolation units for positive prisoners. This coming week, Green Oaks near Whitmore Lake will be converted to accommodate recovering patients.
According to a non-custody staff member at Parnall who did not want to be named, it is starting to calm down. He said, “We are all required to get our temperature taken and to wear masks at all times inside the facility. At one point there were so many staff on sick leave that non custody staff with correctional officer history had to help and work overtime as officers because they were so short-staffed. Cases are decreasing and the facility is almost back to somewhat of normal staffing levels and operations.”
Contact JTV News. Do you have information or news to share? Do you have any questions or do you need resources?