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COVID-19 death toll among Michigan inmates tops 100

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

More than 100 Michigan prison inmates have died of COVID-19, according to Michigan prison officials.

As of Tuesday, there have been 107 deaths of prisoners from the highly-contagious novel coronavirus, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections, prompting calls from inmate advocates for the state to grant more compassionate releases. The department has kept a running list of prisoners and corrections staff deaths online.

Inmates like Rickey Rimmer, who's at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, described a scene comparable to a hospital sick ward.

"I've got the COVID read bad ... haven't eaten in 5 days ... coughs, chills, no energy," Rimmer said Nov. 11. "I'm messed up. The nurse just told me I've got a fever. I haven't been on the phone in a week. I know Momma is worried sick. I can't stand in line to get the phone, too weak. I think we all have a strong class action suit. This thing is real cuz."

Four members of MDOC's corrections staff also lost their lives to COVID-19, according to the department.

"We mourn the loss of four corrections professionals, a corrections transportation officer, a word processing assistant at the Lahser Probation Office in Detroit, a corrections officer, and a qualified mental health professional, who passed away after contracting coronavirus (COVID-19)," read an MDOC statement. "Their dedication to the safety of all Michigan residents will not be forgotten. Our thoughts are with their family, friends and colleagues during this difficult time."

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz staunchly defended his department's efforts to stave off the spread of COVID-19. "We do not want anyone to get sick and we do everything we can to prevent, and slow the spread of COVID in our facilities," he said.

So far, MDOC has conducted at least 466,646 COVID-19 tests on state prisoners and corrections staff. 

In communication with advocates like Darrell Siggers, prisoners in state lockups describe a bleak environment of death and sickness behind bars.

Andrew Boardnax, an inmate at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, is among inmates with concerns about the rising cases of COVID-19 in Michigan prisons.

"They have what you can call a herd immunity mentality on us so that we can all get it and they can see who will survive," he said. "There is no proper protocol in place."

Damon Bentley, who also is incarcerated at Gus Harrison, said there needs to be "plain transparency" in how MDOC is handling outbreaks among prisoners and staff.

"In real time, there are no set STATEWIDE protocols," Bentley said in correspondence with Siggers Nov. 29. "For each facility [is winging it!] as the severity unfolds, I've traveled to (4) facilities within 2 months due to COVID-19."

Gautz denied Bentley's claims about statewide protocols. 

"Facilities do not 'wing it,'" he said. "On our website is a 12-page Director’s Office Memorandum that outlines our policies and procedures. 

Siggers, who was an inmate for 34 years until he was exonerated for a crime he did not commit, said "a statewide policy and protocol should be written and implemented in all Michigan prisons because currently prison guards and staff are all dealing with the virus in different ways without any specific overall guidance or training."

FILE -- Access Plus founder Darrell Siggers talks with his team, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Southfield, Mich.

"Inmates and staff are suffering and dying due to the coronavirus and it is my sincere hope that we can come together and implement some simple steps to alleviate and prevent some of these problems," he said.

Siggers said while he feels "nobody is at fault," he wants to see state and prison officials "come together and figure out pragmatic solutions and best practices to protect inmates and staff."

MDOC officials say they are doing everything possible to keep the prison population safe.

"The department has been leading the nation when it comes to consistent testing of the prisoner population," MDOC said in a statement. "Following the completion May 22 of testing prisoners at Michigan Reformatory in Ionia for COVID-19, the Michigan Department of Corrections completed its goal of testing every prisoner in its system.

"Testing also continues daily at our facilities. When prisoners are set to parole, discharge or other such movements, they are tested again and are not moved until the test results return."

On Monday, advocates, activists and family members of prisoners kicked off an online petition drive urging MDOC and state officials to make prisoners a priority for early vaccination.

"PUT MICH. PRISONERS IN TIER 1 FOR COVID-19 VACCINE DISTRIBUTION NOW," reads the online petition on Change.org. "THE DEATH PENALTY IS OUTLAWED BY THE STATE CONSTITUTION. The COVID-19 Pandemic is raging through Michigan prisons, with individual Michigan Department of Corrections facilities having 77 percent or more active cases among the total population."

Prison inmates in Massachusetts will be among the first to be offered coronavirus vaccines, according to a story published Dec. 18 in The New York Times.

As for most Michigan residents, there will be a timeline for vaccinations for prison inmates who choose to be vaccinated, said Gautz.

"In terms of the vaccine, we are surveying the prisoners to determine how many from each prison is interested in receiving the vaccine," he said.

"Prisoners aged 65 and above as well as prisoners 18-65 with medical conditions such as COPD, hypertension, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, obesity or other conditions that puts them at high risk of a negative COVID-19 outcome will fall into Phase 1C of the MDHHS (vaccination) plan," said Gautz.

MDOC has 1,692 prisoners aged 65 or above. The department is evaluating the number of prisoners who meet the conditions for the first prison vaccinations, said Gautz, who added that all other prisoners over the age of 18 will fall into Phase 2 of the plan.

"We have not received timelines yet for either phase," he said.

Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, a prison watchdog organization, said Monday that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer needs to "step in heavy handedly" to compel MDOC to free more "super" vulnerable inmates who are incarcerated for "low level" crimes.

"The death rates from COVID-19 in prisons and jails is twice as high as they are in the general public," said Bertram. "The spread is so high because prisons and jails are areas where you can't simply socially distance. You can't practice good hygiene in the same way you can if you're outside of prison.

"We have been pushing really hard on prisons and jails to bring down their population as much as possible," she said.

Bertram said most prisoners' family members don't believe their loved ones are getting hand sanitizers and vitamins, both reported protective measures against the virus. She said she is concerned that most prisons are not "transparent" and will not properly report deaths from COVID-19. 

She added that the organization is afraid that guards will come and go, possibly infecting prisoners with the novel coronavirus, and that prisons will use measures like mass solitary confinement to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Gautz responded: "Our policy is not to 'throw everyone in solitary' who gets COVID."

More than 7,000 prisoners have been paroled in Michigan since the pandemic began. MDOC's current prison population is 33,758, which is the lowest in three decades, said Gautz.

Earlier this month, MDOC officials launched a new video visitation pilot program, offering a way for prisoners and their families to safely connect through technology during the pandemic.

bwilliams@detroitnews.com