In the last issue of The Opening Statement, we invited people to write in to let us know how things were going at their facilities in terms of the response to COVID-19. We asked a few specific questions, about whether folks knew anyone who’d gotten seriously sick, been hospitalized, or died; about units being locked down; about how the yards are functioning; about regular medical care; about guards; and about being provided with PPE, among other questions. At the time, we said that depending on what we heard back from you [folks inside], we would try to pull the responses together and include a summary in the next issue of the newsletter.
Part of the reason for this is that, as we’ve explained before, MDOC has been blocking issues of this newsletter that include articles written by prisoners. Before they started doing this (which was in the spring or summer of 2020—right around when the pandemic started), we used to just print submissions from folks inside. Now, by banning prisoner writings in the newsletter, they are effectively censoring you all because they aren’t letting you share your thoughts with other prisoners. Anyway, we have started to include articles from other sources to keep the news and analysis coming. But in this issue we are also including a summary of the letters we received about the ongoing pandemic.
We received responses from 7 different facilities, and will summarize some of them here. We started receiving these responses pretty soon after our last issue went out in the middle of January, and most of the letters arrived in late January and February. This means that things have probably changed since most of these descriptions were written. But we think they still provide useful information for a few reasons. The first is that we have no idea what’s going to happen with the pandemic in the future. Although the Omicron wave has ended, cases are starting to rise again around the country. In Michigan, as of April 25, COVID-19 cases have almost doubled over the last two weeks. This probably has to do with the rise of the Ba.2 subvariant. Anyway, the point is that we don’t know what the future will look like, but if there’s another surge it seems good to know how things have played out in the past. The second reason is that by reading the letters in chronological order we get a rough picture of the trajectory of the Omicron wave. This information fills in some of the story that MDOC doesn’t want anyone to tell about how the surges of COVID-19 in the system. To put it another way, MDOC provides data on the total number of tests, cases, and deaths. But since they only give the totals, it’s impossible to tell when any of this happened. Their numbers don’t give us a sense of the trajectory of the pandemic—whether, and how fast or slow, cases and hospitalizations and deaths are rising or falling. These letters can’t provide the full story, but they can help fill in some of the blanks:
January 25: The first letter we received was from a comrade at Macomb CF. At the time, he wrote, COVID-19 was “out of control.” He especially stressed the fact that prisoners had not been given effective PPE: “They have fashioned bedsheets in the form of a surgical mask and passed them to the prison population. This has been going on since the pandemic began, all while they provide their staff with the N95 masks. You wonder why we are classified as ‘death camps.’ The MDOC has sacrificed the lives of many prisoners to save money.” Along with the letter, this comrade also sent us one of the so-called masks he had received so we could see it, and it was just like what he described: almost totally useless, especially for more contagious variants like Delta and Omicron.
January 26: A detailed letter from a comrade at Carson City CF states that, at that point, there had been 5 official deaths from COVID-19 at the facility (since then, another prisoner there seems to have died according to MDOC’s official statistics). At the time, there were about 350 prisoners who had tested positive for COVID-19 and F-Unit (level 1), 500-Unit (level 4), and 700-Unit (level 2) were designated quarantine units. The comrade writes that the facility was on quarantine status due to the outbreak, but “they’re continuously experimenting with jockeying the designation around to keep programming, law library, etc. moving with minimum restrictions. Currently the school is shut down, though.” Also, he writes that yard is “minimal,” with housing units being let out separately for 20-minute intervals, three times a day. An important detail in this letter is that all medical, dental, optical care is “behind”: “they finally gave me a teeth cleaning/checkup a month ago, after a 3 year wait. Only people who are in dire medical need are actually looked at but all other scheduled treatments, surgeries, etc., have been un-scheduled and left at that.”
January 29: A comrade at Lakeland CF wrote that, at that time, COVID-19 was “rampant.” One thing this comrade stressed was that it’s the guards who are bringing the virus into the facility and putting everyone at risk. When a guard tests positive for COVID-19, prisoners aren’t told who the guard is, for reasons of medical confidentiality, but they ought to be told where the guard had been assigned so they could trace possible contacts. It’s worth adding that the prison administration probably finds it useful that confidentiality helps them hide evidence of the guards’ responsibility for infections. This comrade concludes that he’s been really feeling the Michael Jackson song “They don’t care about us.”
January 31: We received a letter from a comrade at Chippewa CF, which included the following comment: “This past week January 24, 2022 my good friend and brother Richard ‘Malik’ Ingram had a massive heart attack and died in the day room at 11:00 am in F-unit on the west side of Chippewa. Malik really never recovered after Covid-19 and always had some underlying health issues. He will be greatly missed by all of us.” This is a good example of something that MDOC probably doesn’t include among the official statistics of deaths related to COVID-19. How many more deaths provoked by COVID-19 in the system will go uncounted?
February 2: A comrade at Thumb CF also wrote about the fact that guards are responsible for bringing COVID-19 into the facility. The guards, he writes, believe that COVID-19 is a hoax and that the vaccines are dangerous. This comrade knows prisoners who have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and two prisoners who have died, including a very good friend of his. He writes that he’s been moved to the quarantine unit twice, and “it is not where you want to go.” They have been getting regular medical care, but he believes that this is going to be cut back because they are on breakout status. They have also been getting yard time: “two units at a time each getting half the yard with a wide buffer zone. This allows for each of the four units to have yard twice a day.” In terms of protective gear, he writes that they are supposed to get KN95 masks in February, but have been using flimsy cloth masks for the past two years (as the letter from January 25 stated). Finally, this comrade concluded with some moving thoughts on mourning: “Death is dealt with in many ways. I can speak for myself. I’ve mourned the loss of friends and family over the years and have made their passing a gentle meaningful memory. But this pandemic has caused needless and senseless death worldwide.”
February 15: A comrade at Saginaw CF wrote us from quarantine, since he had tested positive for COVID-19 during the weekly test they were administering there and had been moved to the gym, which had been turned into a quarantine area with capacity for 100 prisoners. He wrote that when he got to the gym, there were about 70 other prisoners there, and there was a nurse who checked their vitals and gave them multivitamins and zinc. On his fifth day in the gym, about 40 prisoners were cleared to return to their housing units. This was the second time this comrade has been infected with COVID-19—he wrote that “prison is a cess-pool for this virus” and “one can’t escape catching it.” He added that he knows of one prisoner who has died from COVID-19 at Saginaw already in 2022.
February 21: We received a letter from a comrade at Ionia CF who writes that the Omicron surge had already run its course there, and that there had been no new cases reported for about three weeks. He goes on: “However, COVID or no COVID, the living situation or daily reality . . . can be summed up in one word: terrible. It’s a terrible place, on every level. The living conditions, terrible. The treatment of prisoners, terrible. The medical/health care system, terrible. Food quality, terrible. Even the drinking water is contaminated with sewage/pollutants and tastes terrible.” Well put.
April 7: The last letter we’re including in the roundup is much more recent, from a comrade at Macomb CF, who writes that the COVID-19 situation there is “basically gone.” Everything has been reopened and is “running fine,” although they still have to wear masks. An important detail that comes up in this letter is the matter of visitation. The comrade writes: “Visiting isn’t back to normal yet which sucks cause in order for family to come see you, they have to go to some website and schedule a visit and it’s only 2 hours and they don’t allow us to eat out of the vending machines either like they used to. For some people’s families like my own the website is confusing to figure out so we just don’t get visits.”
We’ve also heard reports about recent Events at Chippewa. On Tuesday, February 8 at 11:45 am, a unit at Chippewa Correctional was at lunch in another unit when two officers began traveling cube to cube taking prisoner property and food and throwing it into a white cart. When prisoners returned to find their belongings taken, they immediately demanded a sergeant be called to the unit, but the officers only responded by threatening to send prisoners to the hole. One officer then left the unit to take the cart of belongings to the dumpster.
During this time, 35-40 prisoners stood together in silence at the center of the unit and officers called for backup. A sergeant and several other officers arrived shortly and a brief standoff was broken by prisoners beginning to vent complaints about the breach or prisoner property protocol as well as mounting frustration about continual racist verbal abuse by the unit officers.
At this point officers gave a dispersal order, however, around 25 prisoners remained until a Deputy Warden appeared on the unit and made promises to resolve the issues alongside block representatives, at which point all prisoners peacefully dispersed to their cubes.
The following day, however, a number of inmates were called into the control center, issued “incite to riot” tickets for “failing to disperse”. The reprimanded prisoners had their security levels increased, were put into administrative segregation, then transferred to other facilities.
If you have any more information about this incident, please write to us.
We want to continue inviting you to write in with comments and stories from inside, that we can include in a roundup like this in the next issue. Some questions came up in the letters: has programming, etc., started up again? What about visitation? Is it happening the same as before or have things changed? When was the last time you were able to see family members and/or loved ones? How did you feel about and cope with not being able to see them during the pandemic? Have you had to mourn for someone, and if so how did you approach it? Also, if there’s something else you think we’d be interested in feel free to write in as well. We plan to keep doing this kind of thing on different topics in the future.