Michigan prison system, jails adjust to coronavirus

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Those visiting a loved one in one of Michigan's 30 prison facilities could soon be subjected to temperature checks prior to entry, as the state tries to prevent the deadly coronavirus from spreading to two groups who cannot easily isolate themselves from it: inmates and the staffers who supervise them.

Security is highly visible at Woodland Center Correctional Facility in Whitmore Lake, which treats Michigan's most mentally ill prisoners.

That dynamic is just as true in Michigan's county jails, such as Ingham County's lockup, which has averaged about 370 inmates a day this year.

"We understand that jails and prisons are a little bit higher risk ... than the general public because of the close quarters that people live in," Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said. "And we do have people here who are in ill health sometimes."

More:WSU, MSU, Central and more suspending in-person classes due to coronavirus

Those close quarters make the threat of the virus more acute, but correctional facilities have protocols in place for handling infectious diseases when they arise. 

Robert Dunlap, chief of jails for the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, said Sheriff Benny Napoleon has been "consistently" in touch with senior staff "to make sure we stay engaged and more importantly prepared to respond, should we encounter a situation."

He and other jail officials said the use of soap and water is one of the major tools against the virus.

"What we know from the Centers for Disease Control is, soap and water is the best solution," Dunlap said. "We're telling our officers, as a last resort they can use hand sanitizer, or even rubbing alcohol, but we're stressing the hand-washing, using warm water." 

Wriggelsworth agreed, adding that his jail's employees "have been outfitted with the masks and the gloves and the eye protection."

The coronavirus officially reached Michigan on Tuesday, when the state health department confirmed two cases of the virus the World Health Organization has declared a pandemic.

The next day, that news caused Wayne State, Michigan State and Central Michigan universities to cancel in-person class, at least for a time, while a number of workplaces across America are either allowing or requiring employees to work from home. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 people in America have died from the coronavirus, and some 900-plus cases have been reported.

The Michigan Department of Corrections has roughly 38,000 inmates and more than 12,000 employees, including about 6,000 corrections officers. One in four state employees works for the corrections department.

In the prison system, screening for visitors will intensify until the virus subsides. 

Visitors to Michigan prisons will be asked screening questions, and could even have their temperature taken, before being allowed entry, according to a statement from the Michigan Department of Corrections. Staff, visitors, volunteers and contractors are all subject to this screening process.

And in areas of the state that have confirmed cases of coronavirus, the MDOC will consult with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and could "potentially disallow all visits and outside contact from anyone other than MDOC personnel."

The two confirmed cases of coronavirus in Michigan are both in Metro Detroit, one in Wayne County, the other in Oakland. 

More:Michigan coronavirus cases confirmed in Oakland, Wayne counties

If in-person visits were curtailed, prisoners would be allowed "increased time for phone calls and for sending electronic messages to family and friends," the MDOC said.

And the prison system is "reviewing" large events, such as graduations, training events, and academies for training officers.

A late-March voter participation rally in Detroit, which was to be headlined by former First Lady Michelle Obama, was canceled Wednesday.

While both the prison system and the Wayne County Jail allow visits, the jails in Oakland, Macomb and Ingham counties did away with most forms of in-person visits years ago, with exceptions made for attorneys and clergy. Others have to reach their loved ones via video.

"We get a little bit of brush-back from the public ... and that's the biggest con of it," Wriggelsworth said. "The biggest pro is, you can be anywhere in the world and visit with your loved one right here in Mason, Michigan."  

Walter Zimny, a captain at the Macomb Sheriff's Office who serves as jail administrator, touted video visitation as a safety measure.

"We have a better opportunity to prevent the flow of contraband into the facility" when visits are done by video, rather than in person, Zimny said. "It's more convenient for the citizens. They could come here and visit, or they can go on their home computer or go to the library and connect, especially when we have adverse weather."

No one has had to be tested for coronavirus at the jails, officials said. 

Soap and water on bodies is part of the plan. Cleaning the facilities themselves is another.

"For the past week, facilities have undergone additional and more frequent cleaning," the MDOC statement said. 

"We continue to do it daily to prevent the spread of germs," said Maj. Christopher Wundrach, a spokesman for the Oakland County Sheriff's Office. 

"This is a closed environment, very similar to a cruise ship. It can be very serious due to the close proximity," Zimny said. "We realized that we have to especially be very diligent to cleanse to sanitize and, hopefully, deter people who are now symptomatic from coming in."


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