Prison Officials, Inmates, Healthcare Workers Reflect on Midwestern Outbreaks

Nov 17, 2020

Credit The Marion Star

As of November 5th, 2020, 167,804 people in prisons across the United States of America have tested positive for COVID-19,  1,386 of those individuals have died. This reporting piece is part of a collaboration between WNIN and the University of Evansville called Covid Between the Coasts. Students reporting on this segment are Ben Godden and Maddie Jesop.  Their work had them interviewing officials and incarcerated individuals in numerous Midwestern states. 

The students became interested in the topic after researching other close space areas such as nursing homes or cruise ships, but even in nursing homes, a lot of states mandate to have at least 80 square feet of space per residence, and on cruise ships, an 85 square foot room is considered pretty tight. But in prison facilities, especially the older ones, youre talking 48 square feet on average. Now the American Correctional Association standards call for a minimum of 70 square feet but again a lot of the older ones are just about 48 square feet so we're talking about a much smaller space than say nursing homes or cruise ships.

We also know the US penal population is the largest in the world. So that made the students curious about what's going on in the Midwest prisons during COVID and what those close quarter spreads really look like.

“Like once a virus comes into the institution, the way it's designed and built, like mass amounts of people are going to catch it, that's just the way it is,” Jason Thompson, an incarcerated person at Marion Correctional Institution in central Ohio said. He is serving a life sentence for several counts of aggravated murder. As of November 1st, 1,922 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 at Marion, including Jason. 12 of the individuals have died.

Chris Gautz, the spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, says as we learn more about the virus, they’re working hard to ensure the correct measures are in place to prevent recurrences.

Ben Godden: “Now moving a little bit more into the testing process area, when were talking about the testing process, we were talking with some prisoners at a prison in Ohio, where there was a hotspot and they went through and voiced some concerns about the medical staff not changing their gloves when going through the procedure and talking about distancing before and after the testing. Can you just talk a little about the testing process and how everythings gone with the medical staff and how they've proceeded with their testing?”

"We have continued to do testing daily anytime a prisoner is moved, anytime a prisoner goes off site like to the hospital or to a court hearing or something like that or if they have to be transferred for some reason even though we have quite limited the number of transfers that we typically do in a day or in a month. So anytime a prisoner leaves that facility for whatever reason, theyre tested and then isolated until we find out the results. We are also doing testing whenever they think they may have symptoms, we test.”

“One of our facilities in our upper peninsula, where at one point that facility has about 327 employees and more than 200 of those employees, at one point or another were not able to come to work because they were either positive themselves or they came in close contact with a positive and had to go off work,” Gautz said.

From Jason’s perspective, his main concern at his prison in Ohio centers around what he says is an inability to follow the CDC’s recommended protocols of social distancing while being incarcerated.

“You know like in the dorm area, the spacing between the beds, you know it's recommended that we stay socially distanced like six feet apart where each bed is mainly about 4 feet apart, sometimes 3ft apart between beds. Could you imagine that?” Jason said.

Jason’s self-described honorary uncle and fellow inmate, 64-year-old David Brownharris, was hospitalized and left on a ventilator for weeks in the ICU battling the Coronavirus.

“This is like being in a can of sardines. This call is originating from an Ohio Correctional Facility and may be recorded and monitored. This is getting ready to be like having a family reunion with doing Thanksgiving.”

Overcrowding of prisons and not having the space to socially distance is not the inmates only concern. Jason also expressed concerns over how the tests were administered.

“I noticed that the nursing staff didn’t change their gloves between each individual test. A test could have been contaminated, the results could have been made to be positive because of lack of changing the gloves but the person could have actually been negative so numbers could have been inflated”

Jason questions his own test, in fact.

“I believed that my test was positive even though they had said I was originally negative, that it came back that I was negative. Then almost a day later, they turned and said they had made a mistake and that I was positive," Jason said.

He believes that the lack of changing the gloves could have something to do with his test resulting in a false negative. Melissa Thompson, a COVID-19 test administrator at Deaconess Hospital in Indiana, confirmed the possibility for a false negative or positive to occur if gloves were not changed by the test administrator after each test.

Part of the issue may be what Brownharris says is a systematic flaw inherent with large, group facilities.

“This system is not designed to help us, it isn't designed to treat us," Brownharris said.

All Midwesterns interviewed for this story, whether prison officials, incarcerated individuals or healthcare workers, are hopeful we’re more knowledgeable now and will be more prepared should another wave occur. The spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections echoed this.

“I mean I think what we’ve learned just from experiencing this and going through it for, I guess what is it, nine months now, how important it is to continually remind staff and prisoners of the importance of the basics of wearing a mask, washing your hands, social distancing, because it only takes one when you work and live in a congregate setting, it only takes one case for it to really explode and sometimes cripple a facility and their ability to work in that environment”

He would certainly know, as Michigan’s system was hit hard. As of November 5, 2020, 7,298 prisoners tested positive and 74 of those prisoners have passed away due to Covid related illness in the state of Michigan. There are only 5 states that have had more prisoner positives and 3 states that have had more deaths due to Covid-19.

In an effort to learn more about the virus, Michigan’s Parnall Correctional Institution has partnered with Wayne State University to do antibody testing for all prisoners who are interested in participating in the study.

“Almost all the prisoners at that prison, all but 30, as of today, have tested positive. And again that was a facility that as of 3 weeks ago didn’t have any cases at all.”

The Michigan and Ohio prison systems that we looked into, like a lot of others in the Midwest, are doing their part to do better. And that’s our goal by sharing this information with you. We collect data, we talk to people, learn and prepare ourselves better for these situations as we face future waves of the pandemic. After all, the Midwest is the centerpiece of the United States of America’s dining room table. As Thanksgiving approaches, we are reminded of our thanks to that centerpiece, you, the people who surround the table.