JACKSON, Mich. — There have been nearly 3,900 cases of COVID-19 in Jackson prisons. The Michigan Department of Corrections says they’re doing the best they can. The mother of one former prisoner says much more can be done.
There have been almost 24,000 coronavirus cases across the 28 facilities in the Michigan Department of Corrections system.
At G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson there are 372 employees and almost 1,600 prisoners. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 900 positive cases at the Cotton facility. Four prisoners died from the disease.
Prison officials they're doing what they can to keep everyone safe including administering weekly COVID-19 tests.
“We continue to ensure we are adhering to the strict protocols and guidelines in terms of mandating that prisoners and employees wear masks at all times," said Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz. "That they practice social distancing, that they encourage handwashing and that they have adequate supplies of soap, hand sanitizer, all those kinds of things available at the facilities. Making sure that we’re doing temperature checks and symptom checks on all of our staff when they begin every shift.”
Janice Green's son Gerard was just released from the Cotton Correctional Facility. She says there's no good way for social distancing to happen inside those walls with eight inmates per cell and 160 people per unit.
“There are so many vulnerable people and sick people in these places...elderly...that are documented and not receiving adequate care for COVID," Green said. "In a pandemic, in a prison, it’s like you know it’s like a petri dish. It can spread like crazy especially when people don’t have room to social distance themselves. They don’t have proper spaces where they can really get cleansed.”
According to an advocate for inmates rights, the Michigan Department of Corrections statewide has a big problem with how they are handling the pandemic and not just in Jackson. Among other things, there have been 127 deaths statewide.
“They’re scared for their lives here because they don’t believe that the staff or the people who are incarcerated there are following the safety protocols they are supposed to be following," said State Appellate Defender Office Deputy Director Marilena David-Martin.
"We are also hearing that healthy people are being housed with people who are sick and housed with people who have symptoms," David-Martin said.
Gautz said the department takes swift action when there is a positive case.
"Obviously we are testing every week, every prisoner, every employee so that we have a good sense of who is positive and obviously who is negative we can separate those individuals we can quarantine the positive," Gautz said. "Identify the close contacts, keep the negatives away from both of those groups so we don’t have further spread.”
Not all of the people who enter the facilities can stay there though.
"The corrections officers come home, you know they go back and forth every day. They can possibly contract and bring COVID out. You know people are coming back and forth. They’re going home. They’re not going to be there forever. So, being more proactive and spacing these places out having better sanitation, healthier food, you know things that can be helpful in a pandemic," said Green.
According to information from the Department of Corrections. among staff there were 109 confirmed cases at the G. Robert Cotton facility, 152 confirmed cases at Cooper Street Correctional Facility and 105 confirmed cases at Parnall Correctional Facility.
No employees from those three facilities have died due to COVID.
Gautz said the department's hands are tied when it comes to early releases for prisoners, that they can't use the virus as a reason to let some out early.
“There’s no such thing as early parole here in Michigan," Gautz said. "There’s a voter initiated law called truth in sentencing which says you have to serve 100 percent of your minimum sentence before you can be considered for parole.”
David-Martin said the issue isn't so clear cut.
“We’ve heard from several clients that they have been denied parole because they can’t have access to certain programs that they need in order to complete parole," she said. "That just should be really shocking to all of us that people are not being allowed to come home because the department of corrections is not able to provide the programs they need in order to feel safe letting people home.”
“Typically when we get these cases, there’s a lot more to it," said Gautz. "Nine times out of ten you know maybe they were on parole before and got sent back so the parole board says, ‘You know what you were just on parole and you broke the rules or committed a new crime we’re not just apt to send you right back out’ or they got themselves kicked out of the class because they were getting a bunch of tickets or getting in trouble.”
Green says every person should be afforded the ability to stay safe.
“Just because people are locked up, they’re still human beings," said Green. "We have people that are elderly. Some that have aged out of crime that have been there so long that have fragile health that they should see about releasing them to space this place out. You can’t social distance in a prison.”
Gautz said the Department of Corrections is starting to see COVID-19 numbers decline and may have access to vaccines as soon as next week.