Inmates ask feds for help stemming COVID-19 in state prisons

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — State prison officials have failed to provide reasonably safe living conditions for inmates who asked a federal judge Thursday for emergency help to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The inmates filed an emergency request for help in U.S. District Court in Detroit, one day after filing a class-action lawsuit over conditions in Michigan's prison system amid the coronavirus global pandemic. At least 41 state prisoners and two corrections employees have died after testing positive for the virus.

The request for emergency relief was filed Thursday, April 30, 2020, in federal court in Detroit.

The inmates want U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith to force prison officials to enact more effective policies regarding social distancing and proper hygiene, and to intensify cleaning, according to a request for a temporary restraining order filed Thursday. The five inmates want court-ordered changes to Michigan prison policy and changes in the locations where inmates are kept in custody.

"These measures are not only in plaintiffs’ best interests, but also in the best interest of correctional staff and the public at large because further outbreak of this virus will infect scores of individuals across our communities," wrote attorney Daniel Manville, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law.

State prison officials already are following guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, prisons spokesman Chris Gautz said Thursday.

 "Most of what is contained in this lawsuit are things the department has already been doing, and another request – to let out low-level prisoners to home confinement – would cause us to violate state law," Gautz wrote in an email to The Detroit News. "We are focused on serious issues right now and lawsuits like this will be resolved in the courts in due time."

The lawsuit comes as prison and jail officials nationwide are releasing inmates susceptible to COVID-19 in correctional facilities in which social distancing is difficult. As of April 22, more than 650 state inmates had tested positive for the virus.

"However, the growing devastation in other prisons around the country is a harbinger for what almost certainly awaits MDOC if immediate safeguards are not enacted," Manville wrote.

He pointed to outbreaks within federal prisons, in which 31 inmates have died and more than 1,800 prisoners and staff have tested positive.

To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, federal prison officials have released on home confinement 1,805 inmates.

Michigan prison officials have enacted several measures to stem the spread of the virus, including banning visitors, requiring top officials to approve any inmate transfers, increased the amount of soap available to inmates and sanitize common areas within prisons. Officials also require inmates to wear one of three prison-issued cloth masks, are recommending inmates practice social distancing and are holding smaller group classroom and program sessions.

Staff also are required to wear personal protective equipment, Gautz said. The state last week started testing entire facilities.

"However, even if the guidance set forth by the MDOC were being followed, it is wholly insufficient to adequately shield inmates from the crisis at hand," Manville wrote.

He wants prison officials ordered to provide inmates access to basic medical screening and treatment protocols for infectious disease along with providing adequate hygiene supplies, and giving people sufficient space to social distance.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews