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COVID-19 cases up at Muskegon but trail other state prisons

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

A state corrections department spokesman said Tuesday nearly half of the inmates at the Muskegon Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19 this month but the number still trails virus case totals at three other state prisons.

Chris Gautz said 607 Muskegon inmates have tested positive for the virus and 689 other prisoners negative. Eleven of 230 guards or staffers at the western Michigan prison have also tested positive.

“But numbers are up at several facilities,” Gautz said. “There are at least three others who have recorded 100 or more positive cases than at Muskegon.”

State records show 815 inmates have tested positive since March at the Lakeland Facility in Coldwater, 773 at the Cotton facility in Jackson and 707 inmates at the Gus Harrison prison in Adrian, Gautz confirmed.

Based on those and totals at other state corrections facilities, 4,610 of the state’s 37,481 inmates have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. There have been 68 inmate deaths linked to the virus, 23 of them at the Lakeland facility.

Among prison staff statewide, there have been positive cases, with the highest numbers at the Cotton (41), Lakeland (39) and Harrison (34) facilities.

Gautz said prisoners who test positive have been isolated from the general population at facilities.

“In the beginning of the spike at Muskegon, we did transfer and isolated those who tested positive to other facilities,” Gautz said. “Now we are isolating them in buildings at their current prisons, rather than moving them around.”

Gautz said the higher numbers partly result from officials stepping up “mass testing” of prisoners following an outbreak of cases at the Muskegon facility.

It is suspected that since neither visitors nor new inmates have been allowed at the Muskegon facility for several months, exposure to the virus came from prison guards and staffers.

“Since we have not permitted outside visitors — family, friends or lawyers — since mid-March the speculation is that is being brought in by staffers,” he said. “One thing we know about the virus is that it only takes one source for it to spread,” he said.

Gautz said an investigation into the virus' possible source is underway. All 1,200 Muskegon inmates and staffers are issued masks, instructed to repeatedly use hand soaps and told to practice social distancing whenever possible.

Relatives of some Muskegon inmates who contacted The Detroit News this week dispute whether such safety measures are being practiced or encouraged.

“My uncle is in there and both he and a cellmate tested positive and they moved them into a large room with other (positive tested inmates),” said Crystal Austin of St. Louis. “They aren’t given any masks and no one is social distancing.

“I’m worried,” Austin said. “I understand you commit a crime, you go to jail. But I think they are being treated like animals and that’s not right. I don’t want to learn my uncle died from a virus because they aren’t taking proper precautions.”

Tracy LeBlanc of Battle Creek said her 33-year-old son is one of 133 prisoners packed into one "classroom," living there together in the Muskegon facility.

“They aren’t telling the truth about what’s going on in there,” said LeBlanc. “They are short-staffed, and when we call to talk to a supervisor, there is no one available."

She added: “My son has asthma and people like him were supposed to be placed away from more serious cases. How is he ever going to get better with things like that?”

Gautz disputed the claim.

“There are not 130 prisoners living in one classroom but rather there are 100 beds in the gymnasium, of which 97 beds are occupied, and then in a separate area in the school building, there are another roughly 50 beds that are occupied,” he said.

Gautz said because of the outbreak, classes have been suspended and inmates with positive virus tests eat in those designated areas rather than with the general population.

Inmates with other serious health concerns are moved to different facilities if needed. Other special measures have been enacted, Gautz said.

The potential for spreading the virus in prison populations has been anticipated since the beginning of the pandemic, when Michigan cut some sentences short, accelerated parole approvals and released thousands of inmates in an effort to prevent outbreaks.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a revised executive order Saturday on jails and prisons that requires adoption of testing protocols for Michigan Department of Corrections facilities, and requires that jails adopt comparable protocols in order to transfer inmates to state facilities.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319