Mich. prisons now requiring all COs, inmates to wear masks

The mask requirement will apply across the board, regardless of whether a facility has been touched by COVID-19

By James David Dickson
The Detroit News

DETROIT — By the end of next week, as soon as enough inventory arrives for all 38,000 Michigan prisoners and thousands of prison staffers to be given three free masks each, mask-wearing will be mandatory at Michigan Department of Corrections facilities.

As of Thursday, 158 inmates and 26 corrections staffers had contracted the coronavirus, which has reached nine of the department's 29 facilities.

The mask requirement will apply across the board, regardless of whether a facility has been touched by the virus, Chris Gautz, spokesman for the department, said. While most in-person visits are prohibited during the crisis, contractors or laborers working on-site at prison facilities will be given masks.

While law enforcement officials across the country work without protective gear, Michigan's prisoners, employed by Michigan State Industries, have retooled their efforts to produce 87,000 cloth masks, 1,400 gowns, and 350 PPE suits, as of Thursday, Gautz said. And prisoners at the Gus Harrison facility in Adrian are producing protective eyewear.

"To get started, we had to lay it out, design it, get it approved, make sure we had the material coming in to make them, and then get it sewed," Gautz said.

Michigan State Industries' inmate workers also produce the state's license plates. The program makes all the soap and cleaning supplies prison facilities rely on, and has ramped up production of those too.

The effort started last week and is producing 8,000 to 10,000 masks a day, he said.

Prison staff required to make hospital runs to transport inmates are now required to do so in PPE gear, Gautz said. This week, a transportation officer for the department died in Detroit.

"We just don't know what other entities are doing in terms of protecting their staff and what they're doing to safeguard against the virus," Gautz said. "We want to make sure our staff are covered when they go into any setting that's not ours."

When a facility has received enough materials that every employee and every inmate can be given three masks, mask wear will become mandatory throughout that facility, Gautz said. That requirement will hold until the medical guidance changes.

"We will do what the medical experts recommend," Gautz said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance does not yet recommend that people who are not sick wear masks, but media reports indicate that guidance could change.

Jail and prison environments are thought to be inherently high-risk to the virus due to the large numbers of people around and lack of opportunities for social distancing.

If every prisoner and every department of corrections employee were given three masks, about 150,000 would be required. But not all corrections staff work in prison facilities.

Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union that represents about 6,000 corrections officers, told The News previously that a lack of protective gear was a concern for officers.

But he called the masks being made "problematic."

"The department has its sewing factories working full-speed making some homemade masks — which is better than nothing," Osborn said. "But it's problematic, because they're not really designed to be worn all day."

To an extent, Osborn said, only so much can be done to prevent the spread of the virus, which thrives on crowds.

"There's so many people in an enclosed building," Osborn said. "You're talking 60, 70, 80 prisoners all using the same community restroom. There's just so many bodies in there, and everybody's touching everything, and it is what it is."

"We can't put the whole thing in bubble wrap."


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