West Michigan prison reports COVID-19 outbreak

Angie Jackson
Detroit Free Press

A state prison in West Michigan is seeing an outbreak in COVID-19 infections after going months with no confirmed cases behind its walls. 

As of Tuesday evening, 155 prisoners at Muskegon Correctional Facility had tested positive since the first case there was confirmed July 27.

The prison on Tuesday wrapped up mass testing in response to the outbreak. Results for 762 prisoners were pending Wednesday. The facility houses roughly 1,200 people. 

The infections have so far been confined to two housing units, said Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. Prisoners with the virus have been transferred to a specialized isolation unit at Carson City Correctional Facility about 70 miles east or to MDOC's Duane Waters Health Center in Jackson, Gautz said. 

The outbreak at Muskegon Correctional follows a notable drop in active infections across the prison system. In late July, the department reported 11 active infections among its population of more than 35,000 prisoners. As of Tuesday evening, the number of active cases had climbed to 168.

In addition to the prisoners, two staff at Muskegon have tested positive. Testing is not required of employees, but it's being offered this week to staff at Muskegon, neighboring Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility — where there were four staff cases and no infections among prisoners as of Tuesday — and in field offices. 

Officials believe they have a "good handle" on the likely source of the outbreak but are not ready to discuss it publicly, Gautz said. 

"We know it didn't come from the prisoners," he said. 

More:Active COVID-19 cases in Michigan prisons are down, but experts say threat isn't over

More:Some Michigan prisons will soon offer video calls with loved ones

Razor wire lines a fence at the Muskegon Correctional Facility in October 2012 in Muskegon.

Five prisoners were transferred to Muskegon from Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center in Jackson in July. Gautz said the transfers are not suspected as a source of the outbreak because the prisoners twice tested negative before they were moved, were isolated when they arrived and were not assigned to the two housing units with positive cases. 

Visits at all Michigan's prisons were halted in March.

Worried on the outside

Stacey Casanova's husband is awaiting his test results at Muskegon Correctional Facility. She said she's worried about losing contact with him if he tests positive and is isolated. 

He frequently asks her about symptoms of COVID-19, which makes her think that prisoners aren't getting enough detailed information about the virus. 

"They're not really getting a lot of education about COVID itself in terms of what the symptoms are, how soon you might start getting symptoms," she said. 

Marilyn Jordan said she can hear the fear in her son's voice when he calls her from Muskegon Correctional Facility. 

"My son never calls home to complain about anything," she said. "He has been reaching out to me and his grandma stating that, 'We have corona here.'"

Since late March, 4,037 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 across the state prison system, an infection rate of 11%. Sixty-eight prisoners have died. As of late July, Michigan ranked sixth in the country for the number of prisoner cases and eighth for cases per capita, according to The Marshall Project

Of the 415 MDOC staff confirmed to have had the virus, three have died. 

Angie Jackson covers the challenges of formerly incarcerated citizens as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, with support from the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Click here to support her work. Contact Angie: ajackson@freepress.com; 313-222-1850. Follow her on Twitter: @AngieJackson23