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Population of Adrian prison COVID-19 'step-down' unit doubles in one day

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Family members are raising questions after the state transferred dozens of inmates who had tested positive for the coronavirus to a prison facility in Adrian that had no cases at the time but does now.

As of Tuesday, it housed 55 people. But by Wednesday night, it had doubled, to 111. Holly Kramer, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said the prisoners in the step-down unit come from the Macomb, Parnall, Lakeland, Kinross, and Woodland Correctional Facilities, as well as the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center and the Detroit Re-Entry Center.

On April 7, the Michigan Department of Corrections sent inmates who had previously tested positive for the coronavirus but were then cleared by medical staff and showed no symptoms to Gus Harrison Correctional Facility. The Adrian site was chosen to hold these inmates due to its layout, said Kramer. 

The step-down unit, as the prison system calls it, "sits outside the perimeter of the prison," Kramer said.

At two other facilities, G. Robert Cotton in Jackson and Carson City in mid-Michigan, those separated housing units are used to quarantine people who have tested positive and are still sick.

"They're in a completely separate unit from the main facility," Kramer said of the step-down group. "So the prisoners won't have any contact with the rest of the population in the main facility, and the same custody staff consistently work in that unit to limit movement between that unit and the facility or staff who are working in that unit are also wearing masks and gloves."

Early last week, Harrison had no positive cases of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday night, when the numbers were updated last, it has eight. Nine other inmates have tested negative and one test is pending.

Family members of people at the Harrison facility have expressed concern that the virus was introduced to the facility. 

"When the rise of this virus hit, this facility had no numbers. None," said Trudy Williams, 52, fiancee to an inmate at the Harrison facility.

"You bring them into these facilities and say they're on the outskirts," Williams said. "Then after they come, you start having cases."

The corrections department views the step-down as an "interim measure, to put more time between them testing positive and being sick and recovering," Kramer said. "This is to give them more time before they're reintegrated with the population."

The department says that corrections officers who staff the step-down unit don't cross-over to serve the regular unit, but says that medical staff work in both.

"Nursing staff can attend to prisoners in that unit and then the rest of the population," Kramer said. "They're following all the protocols and taking the precautions that they need to in regard to protective equipment, protective procedures for themselves, and for the prisoners they are caring for."

MDOC medical director Dr. Carmen McIntyre declined comment on the step-down unit, referring The News to the department's media office.

Williams says she didn't think much about issues in the criminal justice system until she grew close with her fiance during his incarceration on drug charges out of Wayne County. 

Every weekend, she travels to the facility for a day together with her fiance — or used to, until about a month ago, when the virus reached Michigan and the prison system quickly suspended visitation. 

Williams estimates that between visits, food, phone calls, care packages and lawyer fees, she's spent $50,000 in the years he has been behind bars.

"A Michigander, regardless of where they lay their head, is still a resident of the state of Michigan," Williams said. "And people who are incarcerated are literally in the custody of the state."

All told, Michigan has about 37,700 prisoners, and 454 coronavirus infections. Eleven inmates have died after contracting the virus.

Among the state's 12,000 corrections department staffers, Kramer said, 175 are confirmed to have the virus, and two have died from it. One was an officer and the other worked in field operations.

The department now requires that all employees working in facilities, and all inmates, wear masks.

More:Mich. corrections officers get hazard pay, dispute use of sick time for quarantines

Williams works in the health field herself, and is a self-described "fanatic" when it comes to trying to prevent the virus from reaching her home, which she shares with multiple immuno-compromised people and a child. 

When she returns home from work or the grocery store, she enters her garage and takes off the clothes and shoes she had been wearing.

"I'm not trying to hold them to a standard that does not exist or is unrealistic," Williams said. "But what is the protocol when staff leaves that (step-down) population and goes into the general public?"

jdickson@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @downi75