COVID-19 sickens hundreds of staff, inmates in Mich.

The surge led to a staffing shortage so dire that officials brought in employees from other prisons


By Angie Jackson
Detroit Free Press

MARQUETTE, Mich. — The novel coronavirus has torn through a prison in Marquette, infecting 75% of the more than 1,000 men housed there since the pandemic started in March.

And 42% of the 327 employees at Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Friday. A recent surge in infections led to a staffing shortage so dire that the Michigan Department of Corrections brought in employees from other prisons and transferred more than 200 Marquette prisoners to another facility.

Of the 618 men who remained housed at the prison as of Thursday, all but 45 had caught the virus, according to corrections spokesman Chris Gautz. More than 450 cases were considered active infections as of Friday. In total, 778 prisoners at Marquette have tested positive.

Gautz said in an Oct. 13 interview that the facility had a “good handle” on the outbreak after restricting prisoners’ movements and designating staff to either the minimum or maximum security housing units in an attempt to contain the virus.

The prison has since reported more than 600 new infections among prisoners and staff.

“It’s just a mess in here,” said Deangelo Anthony, 31, who is incarcerated at Marquette and shared a plea for help in a recording provided by his mother. He tested positive earlier this month. “ … they messed up big time. They understand it, they coming around telling us that they messed up, but they not trying to do anything to help the matter and better our conditions.”

The situation in Marquette comes on the heels of another major outbreak at Muskegon Correctional Facility in west Michigan, where 78% of prisoners contracted the virus in the late summer — a situation officials say could have been handled better.

All of Michigan’s 29 state prisons have seen at least one COVID-19 case among prisoners or staff. The department reported 6,598 prisoner infections and 779 staff cases across the state as of Friday.

Nationwide, at least 152,955 prisoners and 34,188 staff at state and federal prisons have tested positive since the pandemic began, according to data tracked by the nonprofit newsroom The Marshall Project. Michigan ranks ninth for prisoner cases per capita.

Dr. Josiah Rich, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University, said correctional facilities can't combat the virus if they don't lower their populations and take steps such as enforcing that prisoners and staff wear masks.

"If you can’t do physical distancing, then how are you going to stop transmission? If you don’t have good ventilation systems, if your (correctional) systems are over crowded, how do you do it? Well, you don’t," said Rich, who is director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island. "And you're going to have repeated outbreaks and repeated spread."

'Almost impossible' to avoid virus

The outbreak at Marquette Branch Prison began in early September with cases among staff, Gautz said.

Marquette housed 840 prisoners at the start of the outbreak but has since transferred more than a quarter of its population — minimum security prisoners — to Newberry Correctional Facility to alleviate the staffing shortage, Gautz said. At the worst point, 141 employees were off work at once, either because they’d tested positive or were a close contact of a co-worker confirmed to have the virus.

Staffing levels are improving as employees return to work from quarantine and staff from elsewhere assist temporarily, said Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, which represents 6,000 corrections officers. Gautz said 99 employees were not eligible to work Thursday, but more were expected back in the coming days.

With 136 infections as of Friday, Marquette has by far the most staff cases of the state's prisons. Osborn said most have been asymptomatic.

"There haven't been instances we've been aware of where anybody required hospitalization, whether it's staff or prisoners," he said of Marquette.

The majority of prisoners currently incarcerated at Marquette are those deemed the highest security risk. Their security level prevents them from being moved to the part of the prison that held the minimum security prisoners transferred to Newberry, Gautz said.

They're housed in single-person cells with open bars. Prisoners weren't moved to new cells according to their coronavirus test results, Gautz said. He said they leave their cells for showers and yard time with cohorts of other prisoners who are also either negative or positive.

Gautz said prisoners can't see or touch people in the cells next to them, but Jerry Anderson, a man incarcerated at Marquette, said that's not the case.

Anderson, 29, who tested positive, wrote the following in a message sent through the prison email system: "the cells here are open bars like you see in the old prison movies, this prison was built in like 1889 and the cells are not 6 feet apart so I can't social distance. if we wanted to reach out and touch hands we could."

Autumn Thomas of Seattle said her brother described to her how he could hear men coughing in nearby cells.

He was among more than 100 prisoners transferred to Marquette in September after a disturbance at Chippewa Correctional Facility, where prisoners took control of a housing unit. His first test at Marquette came back negative. A subsequent test confirmed he had COVID-19, Thomas said.

She said it seemed "almost impossible" for her brother to avoid contracting the virus while sick people were housed in nearby cells. Thomas thinks prisoners with COVID-19 should have been quarantined in a separate area of the facility.

"If there’s not space currently, then they need to figure out where they can create the space. It is their fault if people die," she said.

Seventy-four prisoners and three staff across the state have died of COVID-19 since late March. None have been from Marquette.

Things 'could've been done better'

The proportion of prisoners sickened by COVID-19 at Marquette is the second highest in the state after Muskegon Correctional Facility, where cases surged in the second half of the summer and claimed the lives of five prisoners.

As of Friday, 1,004 Muskegon prisoners — 78% of the population — had tested positive. Active cases have tapered off to three infections.

Men incarcerated there sounded the alarm as the virus spread in August. The Free Press previously reported that prisoners alleged the facility was mishandling the outbreak. They complained that in some instances, the prison allowed positive prisoners to mix with the general population. People who tested negative said they were moved into cells that previously held positive prisoners and had not been cleaned.

Gautz acknowledged there were things "that could’ve been done better" at Muskegon. He referred to the issues as small mistakes that if handled differently would have "eliminated some of the confusion."

He said a prisoner whose bunkmate tested positive was moved to a housing unit established for prisoners confirmed to have the virus before his own results came back.

In another instance, prisoners who tested negative for COVID-19 were moved to a housing unit as positive prisoners were getting ready to move out. It happened around count time, during which movement is halted, and so the two groups ended being in the unit at once.

"It wasn't a very long time," Gautz said, "but still, it shouldn't have happened."

The department required prisons to create a COVID-19 plan in March. Asked whether officials at Muskegon Correctional Facility were caught off guard by the outbreak several months into the pandemic, Gautz said, “I don’t know if that’s too strong. There were certainly issues there. ... The number (of cases) speaks for itself that there was a higher rate there and certainly would show there were issues there that needed to be addressed."

Martell Harper, 30, who is incarcerated at Muskegon and contracted COVID-19, said he thinks the prison should have acted faster in shutting down operations and restricting prisoners' movements when the first cases cropped up.

"You know it was inevitable for it to enter the facility," he said. "It seemed like once it hit, they were flying by the seat of their pants trying to figure it out."

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