State halts prison, juvenile justice facility visits indefinitely amid coronavirus outbreak

By: - March 14, 2020 12:21 pm

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In-person visits at Michigan’s prisons were discontinued Friday until further notice — and as of Saturday, that new policy extends to juvenile correctional facilities and care facilities, as well.

The prison visit protocols were announced by the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) Friday over concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, which has now infected at least 25 people in Michigan, as of this story’s publication. DOC will monitor the situation to decide when the new rules will be lifted.

A statewide coronavirus hotline will be open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1-888-535-6136. Information can be found on the DHHS website or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced an executive order later Friday to impose temporary restrictions on entry into health care, residential and congregate care facilities and juvenile justice facilities, which began at 9 a.m. Saturday and will continue until 5 p.m. April 5. 

Additionally, starting Monday morning, the order will require that individuals seeking entry into these facilities must be assessed for COVID-19 symptoms and risk factors and cleared before being let in.

“We believe these actions, along with those the governor has announced in the past few days, will help us slow the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan and protect our communities,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Chief Deputy for Health and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. “We encourage every Michigander to remain flexible and take care of each other at this time.”

The new DOC policy will be enforced not only for personal visitors of inmates, but also for outside volunteers, tours and other groups who come into Michigan’s 31 prisons.

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“This was not a decision we arrived at lightly, as we understand and recognize the importance of family contact with the prison population,” DOC Director Heidi Washington said of the prison visit restrictions in a statement. “Our primary concern has to be public safety and reducing the number of people who enter our facilities is a key factor in limiting the potential spread of this illness into our prisoner population.”

The DOC press release noted that there is no known connection between the presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 identified in Michigan and the DOC, so the new policy is purely preventative.

The ban on prison visits is the latest in a slew of measures state officials have implemented since Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Michigan Tuesday evening. This includes a prohibition on gatherings with more than 250 people, an executive order directing all public bodies to consider postponing meetings and making all necessary meetings remotely accessible, and the closure of all K-12 schools throughout the state until early April.

But prisoners can’t go home and self-isolate to prevent contagion like most people can. The close quarters and communal living areas in prisons make for highly contagious environments, and could be life-threatening for inmates who are older adults and/or have serious chronic illnesses.

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To protect against the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan’s prisons, DOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said that the state is now looking into services that could allow prisoners to keep in contact with their loved ones without meeting face-to-face. This is still in the works, but could include more time for individuals to use the phone, more time to use electronic messaging, and possibly eliminating the cost of calls and messages.

“That communication between prisoner and family is incredibly important, and we want to do everything we can to allow it to happen, while the visits themselves won’t be allowed to take place,” Gautz said.

Facilities are also now undergoing deeper and more frequent cleans — with the addition of bleach, which had previously been restricted at prisons for safety reasons. Areas of high use are cleaned even more frequently, as well as doorknobs, phones and other points of high contact.

Additionally, prison staff will have their temperature checked and have to answer a “series of screening questions” before being allowed into the prisons. Staff members will not be allowed in if they have a temperature over 100.4 degrees.

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As for older prisoners, and those with serious chronic medical conditions — the two demographics at the highest risk for COVID-19 — Gautz says the department is doubling down on efforts to protect their health.

About 9% of Michigan’s incarcerated population is older than 50 years old, which means that thousands of prisoners across the state are at higher risk for getting seriously ill with the disease. 

There are a number of designated correctional facilities that specifically house these most vulnerable populations. According to Gautz, DOC had already been planning to cease visitations to those locations, but decided Friday morning to apply that rule to all facilities.

“Originally that had been our plan — to only close visits to those facilities that had our most elderly, and prisons where we have our most chronic care prisoners, the prisons where we have health centers, infirmaries where we provide in-patient care and out-patient treatment, as well as our hospice services,” Gautz said.

“… [But] when we came in this morning, after we saw all the announcements and all the increases of cases that were announced last night by the governor and her actions with the schools, we decided to close all facilities to visits.”

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DOC also is taking measures to ensure the state’s prison population is aware of the risks, and is putting up signage from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention across all facilities.

“People who are incarcerated can do little to nothing to protect themselves if the virus enters a facility,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for criminal justice policies that reduce incarceration.

The JPI released a statement Thursday with its recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19 among the incarcerated population, including releasing nonviolent, elderly and medically vulnerable prisoners.

“We know health care facilities, providers and resources around the world are being taxed beyond capacity. On the inside, we don’t know who, if anybody, is being tested. Health care in prisons and jails is often below a common standard of care — it is not going to improve in the coming weeks and months to deal with this virus,” Schindler said.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).