Inmates sue Mich. DOC over COVID-19 response
The department is facing a class action lawsuit after more than 1,400 inmates were confirmed COVID-19 positive and 41 inmates have died
By Angie Jackson
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — The Michigan Department of Corrections is facing a class action lawsuit over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak inside its facilities, where more than 1,400 prisoners are confirmed to have the virus and 41 inmates have died as of late Wednesday.
A complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan accuses the department of violating prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by exposing them to risk of illness and death from COVID-19.
“Despite the ticking time bomb that COVID-19 represents, MDOC has failed to implement necessary or adequate policies and practices throughout its prisons,” according to the lawsuit filed by attorney Daniel Manville, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law, and Detroit attorney Kevin Ernst.
"Plaintiffs have been denied proper and equal access to vital preventative measures to avoid the transmission of COVID-19, in violation of federal law and the United States Constitution.”
The lawsuit alleges that the department's policies in response to the pandemic are "woefully inadequate" and don't meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations for correctional facilities. It argues that prisoners are not able to practice social distancing in housing units where they're double-bunked in a cell or confined in dormitory settings, during meal times at the chow hall and during yard time.
When reached Wednesday, MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz contended that the department is following guidelines from the CDC and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
"The CDC has changed their guidance, and all along, we’ve continued to follow it," he said.
The lawsuit requests a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction to require the department to implement 21 measures, which range from the testing of all prisoners and staff within 14 days to the release of low-level security prisoners to home confinement.
Gautz said the department has already implemented some of the measures requested in the lawsuit, such as waiving medical co-pays for prisoners with symptoms and sending prisoners with severe symptoms to community hospitals — he said 47 prisoners with the virus were hospitalized as of Wednesday. He noted that, by law, the department cannot release prisoners before they've reached their earliest release date.
As of Wednesday, 1,412 prisoners at roughly half the department's 29 prisons were confirmed to have COVID-19. The department houses roughly 38,000 prisoners.
The lawsuit states that infections within prisons don't only affect inmates, saying that "prison health is community health." Health experts have noted that boundaries between prisons and the communities in which they’re located are porous, with employees coming and going across multiple shifts each day.
"An outbreak at any one prison could easily spread to the surrounding communities through prison and medical staff. Time is running out for proper protections to be put into place," the lawsuit states.
'Constantly lives in fear'
The lawsuit names MDOC Director Heidi Washington and the wardens of four prisons: Willis Chapman of Macomb Correctional Facility, Noah Nagy of G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, Melinda Braman of Parnall Correctional Facility, and Bryan Morrison of Lakeland Correctional Facility.
The four prisons house the six plaintiffs who've filed grievances during the COVID-19 outbreak.
A few of the plaintiffs have tested positive for COVID-19, and others fear that their chronic health conditions will make them susceptible to severe complications if they contract the virus.
Among other things, the prisoners allege that telephones and kiosks are not disinfected between each use. They say social distancing is not enforced when prisoners wait in line for meals. Some have observed staff not wearing gloves or masks, according to the lawsuit.
One of the plaintiffs, prisoner Craig Seegmiller, is assigned to a housing unit in a pole barn at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, a prison in Jackson where 140 inmates have tested positive. He shares a 10-by-12-foot cube with seven other men, five of whom had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 20, according to the lawsuit. Seegmiller, who is in prison for a 2017 conviction of delivery/manufacture of methamphetamine in Midland County, said he was not tested.
"He constantly lives in fear that he will die because of the lack of treatment and testing provided to inmates even after they have been exposed to inmates with known infections," the lawsuit states.
Another prisoner, Robert Reeves, said he contracted the virus at Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson, which has 170 known cases among its prisoners and emerged as a hot spot for the virus several weeks ago. Reeves, who is incarcerated for convictions of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and armed robbery in Wayne County in 1999, was moved to an isolation unit at Cotton. He said he was not given supplies to clean his cell in isolation and was not able to file grievances.
"He has not seen a doctor, nor did he receive medical instructions on what to do if his symptoms get worse, despite complaining of chest pain, coughing up blood, and having problems breathing," according to the lawsuit. "Reeves was told it was normal and to just endure it."
Among the requests the lawsuit makes is the testing of all prisoners and MDOC staff.
Experts say mass testing to identify asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 is an important step to contain virus infection in congregate settings such as prisons.
The department until recently only tested prisoners with symptoms of the virus. MDOC began its first wave of widespread testing of all prisoners at certain facilities last week, beginning at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater.
Results for 785 prisoners, or 56% of the population at Lakeland, were positive. About 80% of those confirmed to have the virus at the prison were asymptomatic, Gautz said.
Eleven housing units at Lakeland are now dedicated to prisoners with COVID-19, and those who tested negative are housed in seven other units, Gautz said. Staff began delivering meals to prisoners in the housing units on April 24, keeping inmates out of the dining hall.
More than half of Lakeland's 1,400 prisoners are elderly or have chronic health conditions. The facility leads the state with 14 prisoner deaths from COVID-19.
Mass testing began this week at Cotton — another facility that houses many prisoners with chronic health conditions — and is about halfway done, Gautz said Wednesday, adding that results so far have shown "a huge number" of negatives. Of the 792 prisoners tested as of Wednesday, 650 were negative.
In all, MDOC has tested 3,117 prisoners, or 8% of the total population at the start of the outbreak in March.
Staff with symptoms of the virus must seek testing in their communities, to the frustration of some employees. As of Wednesday, 268 staff have tested positive. Two have died.
"MDOC has acknowledged that staff members have also tested positive for COVID-19 and some have died, yet has done nothing to thoroughly test staff or otherwise prevent them from spreading the deadly virus to inmates," the lawsuit states.
These are some of the other requests made in the lawsuit:
- Provide immediate referral to a hospital upon display of severe symptoms for any prisoner with a positive test.
- Sanitize all commonly touched areas after every use.
- Stop all prisoner and corrections officer transfers except those related to COVID-19.
- Make disinfectant available at all times, free of charge.
- Provide PPE and instruction materials on proper use.
- Release low-level prisoners to home confinement.
- Enforce social distancing of 6 feet at all times.
- Communicate changes in policies and practices about COVID-19 to prisoners.
- Provide an adequate supply of hand soap, paper towels and disinfectant products to prisoners for free.
- Require that all staff wear PPE.
- Take prisoners' temperatures and assess for symptoms daily.
- Ensure that prisoners who test positive are quarantined in non-punitive settings with access to showers, mental health services and communication with loved ones.
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