By DANIELLE JAMES
Capital News Service
LANSING — Several state prisons are producing masks and protective gowns for staff and inmates to try slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Production is taking place in three prisons with factories, according to Chris Gautz, a public information officer for the Department of Corrections: Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe, Carson City Correctional and Ionia Correctional Facility.
According to Gautz, inmates apply for a job in production and are pre-screened for the virus.
So far, Corrections has produced over 152,000 reusable cloth masks; 2,200 gowns; 1,000 pairs of protective eyewear; and 700 personal protective suits to be distributed to correctional facilities.
According to Corrections, masks are sent first to facilities with positive cases, but the department plans to expand production enough for every inmate and staff member to receive three masks.
Both staff members and prisoners are required to wear masks at all times.
“For every facility that has received their full complement of masks, we require that people wear them throughout the day,” Gautz said. “Prisoners are required to wear them all the time except when they shower and sleep, and staff are required to wear them throughout the duration of their shift.”
According to Gautz, all employees must continue coming to work “because we need them there to help ensure that facilities run safely and securely. The governor has asked that as many state employees work remotely as possible, but the vast majority of our workforce, about 13,000 people in total, work at correctional facilities and will still be coming in.”
According to the department, employees must answer screening questions and have their temperature taken before entering, and those with a temperature above 100.4 degrees aren’t allowed to work.
Employees transporting inmates are wearing full body protective suits, and staff can bring their own masks until enough are available for everyone.
“The hope is to mitigate the spread of the virus, and that’s why we’re following Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] guidelines,” Gautz said. “They now recommend that everyone wears a mask when going outside to protect themselves and others, and that holds true for our facilities as well.
“Some inmates in facilities with no positive cases don’t want to wear protection, but the point in those facilities is that we continue to have no positive cases. In our other facilities, the goal is to flatten the curve and slow the spread,” he said.
According to Corrections, 516 inmates have been tested in 29 facilities. Of those, 338 tested positive as of April 9.
Five prisoners died due to COVID-19 since April 1: three at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, one at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater and one at the Detroit Reentry Center.
There have also been 142 confirmed staff cases across the state. A word processing assistant at the Lahser Probation Office in Detroit and a corrections transportation officer died after contracting COVID-19.
According to the Michigan Corrections Organization, a Lansing-based labor union for corrections officers, employees will receive temporary hazard pay for working their regularly scheduled shifts under an agreement with the state.
Several advocacy organizations across the state have asked Corrections to work with the Michigan Emergency Operations Center to develop additional plans, according to Phil Mayor, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
“Early on in the crisis, we sent letters to the Department of Corrections, informing them that this was coming and helping them with steps to take,” Mayor said. “We have since urged Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer to enact an executive order that would take steps to release prisoners near the end of their sentence or that are medically vulnerable.”
Corrections said it has taken additional steps to protect staff and prisoner health that include suspending in-person visits, limiting transfers and providing additional cleaning products.
According to Mayor, the most effective way to slow the spread of the virus is to limit prison populations.
“The most important thing is to get people out of the prisons,” Mayor said. “I don’t believe that the prison environment can be made safe at the current population levels.
“We need to be getting people out, especially the many people who are old and medically vulnerable.”
But according to Corrections, it has no authority to let prisoners out before their earliest possible release date.
The parole board continues to operate and is interviewing and paroling prisoners as usual.
“A very small number of individuals are still working at the central office on the parole board staff so we can continue to parole prisoners,” Gautz said. “There are hundreds of thousands of files that we can’t risk moving or losing, so those employees are still working as normal.”