Michigan among top four states for most COVID-19 tests in prisons

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Michigan is among four states doing the most COVID-19 testing among inmates, a national group announced Thursday as part of a wide-reaching study of how prisons across the country have addressed the pandemic.

Colorado, Connecticut, Vermont and Michigan had the highest testing rates among the 32 states studied for COVID-19 testing among inmate populations, according to a study released Thursday by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

The study also found that while testing for COVID-19 varied among states the better outcomes were in the four states that conducted the most testing. Vermont, for example, reported no deaths of prisoners from COVID-19.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections said Thursday the study shows Michigan has been doing the right thing to protect its prisoners from contracting COVID-19.

This is the main entrance of the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan.

"We have said all along that we felt our approach was the correct one and would save lives, and it’s good to see that validated and proven by others, said MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz.

"As is explained in the report, within two months of the pandemic beginning, we had tested every prisoner, and then continued doing routine testing and then moved into a system of testing every prisoner and every prison employee, every week," said Gautz. "Because we were finding so many asymptomatic cases with our mass testing, it was clear to us this was the right thing to do. By doing the level of testing we have done and continue to do, we are finding cases early, and preventing a larger spread of the virus and saving lives."

MDOC has conducted more than 666,000 prisoner tests and more than 181,000 employee tests since the start of the pandemic, said Gautz. There are more than 33,000 prisoners in state custody.

Gautz told The News 139 prisoners and four employees have died from COVID-19.

The MDOC is also dealing with an outbreak of a variant of the coronavirus. As of Thursday, there are 474 cases of the United Kingdom variant B.1.1.7 among the state's prison population and 26 staff members have been infected, added Gautz.

The study also found that extensive and frequent testing was effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and saving the lives of inmates. 

The study's author, Kevin Schnepel, a Simon Fraser University economist, compared COVID-19 outcomes of prisoners in 32 states. Seventeen of those states conducted mass testing of all prisoners for the novel coronavirus. The study also looked at 15 states that did not test. 

The study found from May 2020 through late February of this year that one in every three people behind bars in prisons in the 32 states tested positive for COVID-19 – 4.3 times the rate of the population outside of prisons.

Michigan and the other three states that administered the most tests also found a high rate of inmates who tested positive but were asymptomatic.

“More testing, early testing, and early mass testing, in particular, likely helped many states achieve lower rates of COVID-19 mortality in their prisons,” Schnepel said. “Despite the gradual spread of vaccinations behind bars, new variants of the coronavirus continue to emerge. States should keep mass testing in their toolkit of containment strategies – today and in the future – to help prevent COVID-19’s spread behind bars.”

The commission's director and senior fellow, Thomas Abt, said “While we’re seeing progress, there are still states where no vaccines have been administered to people in prison.”

Abt added: “Policymakers should remain vigilant, heed this study’s findings, and consider adopting or continuing mass testing of incarcerated populations to save lives.”

bwilliams@detroitnews.com