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'Just kind of bracing for the worst possible scenario': Michigan inmates worry as omicron spreads

A set of brick buildings are at the center of the image. The building is surrounded by a wire fence and electric wire at the top. A tall long building stands outside the fence. At the top of the building are four large windows. This building is the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in the east side of Michigan.
Michigan Department of Corrections
Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

The highly contagious omicron variant continues to spread inside Michigan’s prisons, as state officials employ strategies like vaccination and testing. But some inmates fear catching the virus is inevitable.

Mallorie Wilson-Strat is currently serving a life sentence at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility since her conviction in 2012. Despite being vaccinated and boosted, she’s contracted COVID-19 twice in the last two years.

“There is a huge outbreak again. I got COVID for the second time. And we were put into a condemned building that wasn't opened, and they had to reopen it because of how many people had COVID," she said.

In the last week of January about 5,500 Michigan prisoners had COVID. That's more than 15% of people behind bars. According to Chris Gautz, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, 63% of inmates have had at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We're also seeing about 75 employees test positive per day around the state. So it's not the worst that it's ever been in terms of prisoners. But we've not seen numbers like this for our staff, throughout the pandemic," Gautz said. “And about a third of all our prisoners have also received the booster shots. So we're strongly encouraging that and every day, we see more and more prisoners wanting to take part in that."

Although the inmate vaccination rate is roughly on par to the rate for all Michigan adults, prison staff are not required to get the shots and the state isn’t keeping track of employee vaccinations.

While masks are required for inmates and staff, Wilson-Strat says the state gave her masks made out of thin cotton. That’s despite the CDC recommending stronger masks like N95s and KN95s to prevent omicron infections.

“It's basically like a sheet. I mean, it's like, it looks like a doctor's mask, but it's like, it's so thin that, I mean, they don't work," Wilson-Strat said. "So then, when I was in the COVID unit, they started telling us that we had to double up our masks, because of how thin they were.”

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive, says they’re working with prison officials to mitigate COVID outbreaks.

“So I mentioned the discussion around masks and upgraded masks has now led to an initiative and plans to distribute KN95 masks, but that's only one layer. And that has to be combined with other mitigation strategies," Bagdasarian said.

Between 30 and 40 thousand inmates and staff get tested for COVID every week. And Gautz says that’s helped keep the current outbreaks at bay.

“We've done more than 1.5 million tests since the beginning of the pandemic, that includes both prisoners and staff. And that's more we've tested more prisoners than states like California or Texas that have, you know, three times or more the size of the prison population that we have here in Michigan," he explained.

In 2019, just over 38,000 people were incarcerated in Michigan prisons. Today that number has dropped to a little more than 33,000. While there are fewer people incarcerated, Efren Paredes Jr., an inmate at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, says overcrowding is still a problem.

“We're eating cafeteria style in the dining halls with, you know, four people at tables that are three feet by five. So you know, it makes it impossible for people to social distance or safely eat in those areas with that environment," he said.

Paredes Jr. has spent the last several weeks writing letters to Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian urging her to help the Michigan Department of Corrections address the issue of overcrowding. Gautz says they are keeping people separated when they can by having inmates do activities, like meals and classes, with their own designated housing units.

Paredes Jr. is both vaccinated and boosted and says he’s hoping that if he does contract COVID for the second time the vaccine will keep him from getting severe symptoms.

“The FDA director recently came on, and CDC director came on television, and they said that it's virtually impossible to not contract this, this Omicron variant at some point in the future. So, I'm just kind of bracing for the worst possible scenario," he said.

As cases surge, many Michigan prisons have paused in-person visitations. Wilson-Strat hasn’t been able to see her 14-year-old daughter in two years.

“I love her very much. And she's my drive that gets me through each day," she said. "And parenting is just a blessing even though it may be challenging at times."

Wilson-Strat is desperate to get to know her daughter better, but it's unclear when cases will drop enough for visitations to resume.

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