COVID-19 spikes follow in prisons after inmate transfers

DETROIT (AP) - Families of men incarcerated at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan believed that their remote location would save them from a deadly COVID-19 outbreak. For a while they seemed right.
Kinross was built on the site of a former air force base on the Upper Peninsula and is closer to Canada than Detroit. Unlike most Michigan prisons, Kinross was almost unscathed from the novel coronavirus, with only one case between March and October.
But on October 28, corrections officials moved nine prisoners from Marquette Branch Prison, several hours west, where COVID-19 was rampant, to Kinross. There were 837 confirmed cases by the end of October, of which 350 were still active when the men were transferred.
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Kinross had its first major outbreak about three weeks later, data from the correction department showed. Although agency officials say this was not due to the renditions, more than 1,100 prisoners have now been infected, at least seven have died and more than 100 guards have become sick. The prisoners who came to Kinross had been transferred twice, after a riot in which they were held, first sent to Marquette and tested positive for COVID-19 there before leaving for Kinross.
Prison transfers of prisoners or prison workers have occurred in prisons across the country following COVID-19 outbreaks. Nearly all 25 state prison systems and the federal prison office that responded to a survey by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press said they had reduced or limited the number of prisoners moved due to the pandemic. Eight states stopped the practice except in exceptional circumstances. The reductions were in line with medical guidelines.
But most of these states lifted their restrictions by September and few prison systems heeded earlier teachings as the pandemic worsened this winter, worrying families of prisoners and law enforcement officers working in prisons.
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This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project investigating the state of the prison system during the coronavirus pandemic. Cary Aspinwall reported for The Marshall Project from Dallas.
The coronavirus has killed more than 300,000 people in the United States, and cases are picking up again this winter after calming down in the late summer months. There have been more than 275,000 cases in US prisons. Prisons are a particular problem because there is virtually no social distance behind bars, prisoners sleep in confined spaces and share a bathroom, and each prison has different policies on personal protective equipment and who gets it.
Relatively few cases of COVID-19 were reported in Oklahoma prisons until state officials shut down several units due to budget cuts and moved more than 4,500 prisoners between facilities from late July to September. Severe outbreaks followed, in which more than 5,800 prisoners tested positive and at least 33 died from the virus.
In Amarillo, Texas, officials working at the Neal Unit prison took pride in the facility being safe from the virus, but that changed in September. At this point, the warder relaxed strict protocols, including the compulsory isolation of transferred prisoners, according to a long-time prison correction officer who knew the protocols directly but was not empowered to discuss them publicly and on condition of having with the Marshall Project spoke anonymity.
The virus soon took over, infected hundreds of prisoners, and killed a chaplain and food service manager in the prison. Texas Department of Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel said the cases mainly occurred among prisoners who were asymptomatic and who disputed the officer's account. “Protocols have not been relaxed. If anything, they have been tightened, ”Desel said.
Families of those who died of the virus in California prisons have blamed transfers directly for the uncontrolled spread of disease, including an outbreak in San Quentin State Prison that resulted in 28 deaths. The family of a deceased prisoner filed a lawsuit that they would sue, claiming officials ignored health officials' recommendations when they transferred high-risk prisoners from the California Institute for Men in Chino, where an outbreak was already spreading. Health experts had warned of transfers between facilities, saying "mass movements of high-risk inmates between facilities are ill-advised and potentially dangerous" and would likely spread the virus between prisons, according to the statement.
Transfers have also been linked to outbreaks in the federal prison system, including a recent outbreak at the Fort Dix, New Jersey facility. Families and lawyers say it was the result of the Bureau of Prisons bringing 150 prisoners there from an Ohio facility that has been battling COVID-19 cases for months.
Michigan had some of the worst and earliest outbreaks in any state prison system. About 20,000 prisoners have contracted the virus since March, and at least 102 have died. The correctional facility in central Michigan is currently having one of the largest outbreaks in the country. More than 2,000 prisoners tested positive.
State officials said they followed proper infection control protocols. Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, confirmed the transfer of the nine men from Marquette to Kinross on Oct. 28, but insisted that transfers are "not the problem" in the virus tide.
"We looked at it," said Gautz. “All prisoners who were previously positive were in a retirement phase, which means they were no longer contagious. It wasn't until weeks later that there was a big increase in Kinross. "
But Kinross prisoners and their families say the virus rose within about three weeks of transmission. Inside the window, medical experts say the virus remains contagious. Some of the transferred men were still experiencing symptoms and being moved to the general population of the prison too quickly, said Matt Tjapkes, who runs a Michigan nonprofit called Humanity for Prisoners dedicated to the medical rights of prisoners.
"The prisoners feel so helpless because they can't control it or stop it," he said. "They feel like they are sitting ducks - and they are."
Justice officials are also concerned about the security of the renditions, said Byron Osborn, president of the union that represents most of Michigan’s judiciary. More than 2,500 law enforcement officers have contracted the virus in Michigan and at least three have died.
"There is obviously not much definitive information from communicable disease experts on the spread of the COVID-19 virus or when infected people are no longer contagious," Osborn said. "We think everyone would agree that this is problematic."
Families of the prisoners who became ill at Kinross say they are angry because the movement of the prisoners is the only thing the correction department controls.
Amy Wallace's husband is one of the men incarcerated at Kinross who contracted the virus and has recovered. But she said a state prison spokesman recently gave a statement to local media that "pinched a nerve".
The spokesman said it was difficult to know how COVID arrived in prison, she recalled.
"Good, ok. We'll do that," she said.
Michigan Senator Ed McBroom, a Republican from the Upper Peninsula, chairs an oversight committee that has held hearings on the Corrections Department's response to COVID-19. He said he has no solid knowledge to suggest transmissions are guilty of spreading the virus behind bars. But he described the agency as opaque and overly positive and didn't give it good marks for communication.
"We need to find out why these outbreaks happen," he said in an interview. “Were mistakes made? I just do not know. "
Jennifer Gross believed Kinross' remote location could protect her fiancé Robert Vermett and the other men there from the virus, even though she couldn't visit him. Vermett is serving a life sentence for murder.
Days after the transfers, Vermett informed her that the virus appeared to have made it inside. He too fell ill and remained seriously ill for more than two weeks.
In an email to her on November 18th, just before he tested positive, he said, “This WHOLE F-COMPOUND IS INFECTED. Every unit, the control center, the gym, the school, the chow hall, everywhere ... so why are they moving anyone anywhere? "

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