DOC: Michigan will soon be 1st state to test all prisoners for COVID-19

3,071 inmates have tested positive, 57 have died

By: - May 19, 2020 1:19 pm

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By Friday, the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) says that the Great Lakes state could be the first in the nation to test every single prisoner at its state-owned correctional facilities for COVID-19.

“Right now we’ve tested about 31,000 prisoners — and in Michigan right now, we have about 36,500 [total]. So just about 5,000 or 6,000 more prisoners to go,” said DOC spokesperson Chris Gautz.

Gautz did not immediately respond to an inquiry about how much the process will ultimately cost the department.

The DOC began an aggressive testing program on May 4 in the Upper Peninsula with help from the Michigan National Guard. Starting at the Baraga Correctional Facility on the west side of the peninsula, the 15 small teams worked their way across the six U.P. prisons, with the goal of testing one facility in its entirety each day.

Gautz said this operation went so well that the goal was completed one day ahead of schedule, on May 8. He noted that the system has gotten faster and more efficient each time, with some facilities getting fully tested in three hours or less.

Additionally, all but two of the 7,400 prisoners housed in the U.P. so far have come back with negative results. The Kinross and Newberry correctional facilities have one positive case each.

“It worked so incredibly well with the National Guard that we started moving that process downstate immediately after,” Gautz said.

On May 11, the teams traveled down to the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee County. There, they found nine positives out of more than 1,000 tests with just six tests still pending results.

“Since then, we’ve gone to almost every facility in the state. By the end of this week, as long as everything goes to plan, Michigan will become the first state in the country to have tested every prisoner,” Gautz told the Advance

He said between two to four prisons are being tested every day at this point.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which has contracts with two correctional facilities in Michigan in Baldwin and Milan, is taking a much different approach to COVID-19 testing for inmates. Unlike with Michigan’s state-run prisons, the BOP does not publicly release testing data and has been slow to publish positive inmate and staff cases at its 134 correctional institutions, as the Advance has reported.

The DOC now reports as of Tuesday morning that a total of 31,736 COVID-19 tests have been administered to prisoners. About half of those results are still pending, but so far approximately 9.7% (3,071 inmates) have tested positive and 57 prisoners have died.

But the large-scale testing doesn’t end there. Once all of Michigan’s 36,500 prisoners have been tested for COVID-19, the department plans to go back from the beginning and test all inmates who had previously tested positive.

The prisoners are considered to be in a “step-down” status after about 14 days from the onset of symptoms when they have been cleared by the DOC’s chief medical officer to be symptom-free and no longer contagious. Prisoners are tested again after 30 days to confirm that they have fully recovered from the illness.

“We’ve gotten so methodical; we’ve got such a great system,” Gautz said. “… We just can’t say enough good things about the [National] Guard. We would not be at the point where we are, having tested almost every prisoner, without their help. We would be months behind schedule if we didn’t have their assistance.”

Michigan is one of only a few states with aggressive testing measures in place for its correctional facilities. Others include Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina.

But even with mass testing in place for the state’s prisoner population and frequently updated testing data available to the public, the state has apparently yet to institute the same measures for the approximately 13,000 staff members at the facilities.

The staff cases listed on the DOC’s page are only listed by the number of staff confirmed positive at each facility and the number of staff deaths there, leaving out benchmarks like numbers of tests overall, pending tests, negative tests and “recovered” staffers.

The Marshall Project, a criminal justice-focused nonprofit news organization based in New York City, reports that this is also the case at many other prisons across the country — although a number of those are not reporting any of those testing results at all.

Gautz confirmed that there is no widespread testing protocol in place for DOC staffers, but said employees can receive free testing if they are available in their community. Otherwise, the DOC has also started implementing free, voluntary staff testing sites in some areas like Jackson and Gratiot counties with the help of the Michigan National Guard. About 200 staffers have taken tests at those sites so far.

“I don’t have an exact number of how many employees have been tested in the community as they only have to tell us if they have tested positive. So far we have had 333 employees test positive,” Gautz said.

The DOC also reports that two staffers, a corrections transportation officer and a word processing assistant at the Lahser Probation Office in Detroit, have died of COVID-19.

The state’s labor union for prison guards, the Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO), is wary of the new testing system, however. Officials said they have not been informed by the DOC about how many staffers have been tested.

“Last week, the MDOC finally began offering voluntary testing for staff members, however, in order to get the testing they require staff to sign a waiver which basically states that the MDOC isn’t liable for anything if the test result is positive,” said MCO President Byron Osborn.

“We have advised our members to review the waiver carefully and have informed them that testing is available elsewhere without the waiver requirement.”

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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).