In Suits Over Pandemic Conditions, Guards And Prisoners Find Themselves On The Same Side

CARSON CITY, Mich. ― In early April, Michigan corrections officer Richard Keck and his wife completed the process of adopting five siblings. 

But Keck has spent little time with his newly adopted children or his three other children. With the coronavirus burning through Michigan’s prison system, Keck has been sleeping in a camper in his backyard in Carson City, a rural town in central Michigan. His wife leaves him meals on the patio, and he only goes inside to shower, after which he carefully cleans the bathroom. 

It’s “stressful,” said Keck, but he will keep living in his backyard until the Michigan Department of Corrections can quell the COVID-19 outbreaks that have ravaged prison systems in his state and across the country. 

“I miss my kids. I miss my wife,” he said in a written statement. “And I’m right outside in the backyard.”

Corrections officers like Keck are also facing uncertainty and fear as the virus sickens prisoners and MDOC staff. As of Monday, 334 officers have been confirmed positive, though the true figure is thought to be much higher because the department has conducted limited testing. 

Inadequate testing is only one of a litany of concerns MDOC officers shared with HuffPost. Among other issues, they say MDOC is failing to manage sick inmates in a safe way and isn’t providing enough personal protective equipment. Officials have also failed to address staffing shortages, forcing fatigued officers to work up to 25 hours of overtime weekly. When prison staff gets sick, they are using paid time off ― and if they run out, they don’t get paid. 

It’s not just officers facing the consequences of working in a high-risk environment. They can carry the disease from hot spot prisons to their families and what are often rural, working-class communities ill-equipped to handle a local outbreak. Meanwhile, the situation has created a deadly loop in which inmates and officers contract the virus from one another. 

Frustrated officers and their union are calling on the MDOC and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration to take meaningful action, but they say there’s been little help. Michigan Corrections Officers union President Byron Osborn said officers are being forgotten. 

“In our line of work, we know what’s expected, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on at the facility — sickness, disturbance — that’s our job because we’re the ones keeping citizens of Michigan safe,” he said. “But we need support from the department, and we need support from the governor’s office. ”  

Corrections officers across the country are contracting COVID-19 at much higher rates than the rest of the population, and as more officers get sick, those remaining on the job are feeling the strain of working multiple 16-hour shifts each week or even shifts as long as 24 hours in some places.

Though facilities are highly complex environments, the failure to protect prison staff typically results from some combination of poor leadership and a lack of resources, said Martin Horn, a retired distinguished lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

He ran New York City’s jails during 2009’s H1N1 epidemic and said departments should be doing all they can to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines and test every officer and inmate. 

“If they are not, then I think it is shortsightedness, a failure of leadership or impetuousness,” he said. “There’s also no question that around the country corrections agencies are grossly underfunded and understaffed. They all went into this with no money and teetering on the edge to begin with.” 

Turning To The Courts

In some cases, unions representing corrections officers are turning to the court system to force change, creating a de facto alliance between inmates and officers against administrations.

The officers union for the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections joined a federal lawsuit inmates brought after about a quarter of the staff got sick in the first five weeks of the pandemic. Positive test rates among the officers was about six times that of the general population. A judge in April ordered the department to provide more protective gear and implement other safety measures. 

A federal lawsuit filed in Michigan on behalf of inmates against the MDOC asks a judge to order the department to test all its corrections officers and provide them with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). The MDOC did not respond to a request for comment. The department announced this week that it would provide voluntary testing for officers. 

The prison courtyard at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio. 

The prison courtyard at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio. 

In mid-April, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine dispatched the National Guard to the Marion Correctional Facility after 80% of 2,000 inmates and at least 117 officers tested positive for COVID-19.

Sally Meckling, communications director of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, said DeWine was slow to send the National Guard to assist officers at Marion. Officers are still working 16-hour shifts at Marion and elsewhere around the state. 

As cases spike in other state prisons, officers with the OCSEA have been demanding testing for all officers at prisons where there’s been a confirmed case and for sick officers to test negative before returning to work. Officers in one hot-spot prison have yet to be issued N95 masks, and the union is demanding more PPE and more inmate lockdowns. The union also filed a statewide grievance after the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections shorted officers on emergency pay by about $6 per hour.  

In New York City, the union that represents 9,000 officers sued the New York City Department of Corrections to demand N95 face masks for staff, hand sanitizer, COVID-19 symptom screening, a requirement that staff test negative for COVID-19 before being ordered back to work, and an end to 24-hour shifts, which the union called a “death sentence” because of the long exposure to a high-risk environment. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an end to 24-hour shifts after the union filed its lawsuit, though the guards still work 16-hour shifts. 

Officers Are ‘Being Penalized’ For Getting Sick

The MDOC’s administrative leave policy allows the department to approve paid time off for officers in a situation like a pandemic. 

Enacting the policy is a simple, common-sense change that would provide relief to officers who contract COVID-19 in the line of duty and miss days or weeks of work, Osborn said. 

Instead, officers have been told to use their regular sick time, which Osborn said amounts to “being penalized” for contracting the coronavirus. 

“This is something that our employer and state can easily fix, and we’ve been patiently reminding them that it’s the state’s obligation to cover these folks, who by no fault of their own, by following protocols that are in place, have gotten sick,” Osborn said. 

Critics say corrections departments should be testing every officer and providing PPE, such as masks and gloves, now that they’re more readily available. Officers in Michigan and Ohio have also questioned why more has not been done to restrict inmate interactions — even in some Michigan prisons with confirmed cases, prisoners still regularly congregate in the chow hall, classes, exercise yard and other common spaces, officers say. 

Separating and locking down sick inmates in high-security prisons with individual cells is a far easier task than in lower-security facilities, which tend to have open barracks-style layouts. But unions and advocates say there’s more that can be done. The Michigan lawsuit asks a judge to order the MDOC to open unused cellblocks and facilities, which it has already done in some cases, and to seek assistance from the National Guard.

A young girl at a protest to bring awareness to the conditions inside the Marion Correctional Institution on May 2.

A young girl at a protest to bring awareness to the conditions inside the Marion Correctional Institution on May 2.

Open dialogue between administration and staff would also help alleviate tensions, said Brian Miller, an officer at Marion and a union representative. The union has tried to work with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, he said, but the department has “from the beginning shut us out and is not talking or working with the union whatsoever.” 

“We’re not here to hamper administration; we’re here to help them out as much as possible,” he said. “My philosophy is ’Hey, let’s work together to try to get through this. Come and talk to me, and maybe we can come up with a better solution together.”

A similar scenario is playing out in Michigan, said Hannah Fielstra, an attorney representing inmates in the MDOC lawsuit. “One of the biggest issues is that the department seems to think its policies are enough, but they’re not taking into consideration what the groups of people on the ground have to say.” 

On an individual level, there’s little recourse for officers who are put in dangerous situations, Horn said, but he noted unions’ wins. 

“[Officers] can disregard their own safety and continue to work, which is not something I recommend, but if they refuse to work and use up sick leave, then the prisons are understaffed and that makes matters worse,” he said. “A lot of people want to demonize unions, but this is where they’re important. 

‘Prison Bars Don’t Keep Germs In’

Miller lives in a small town in north-central Ohio, a short commute from his job at the Marion Correctional Institution. Like many officers around the country working in prisons in rural areas, he applied for the job because few other careers in the area could beat its pay and benefits. 

“When I was hired in 2000, without having a degree, it was one of the best jobs you could get,” Miller said.  

Miller had joined other officers living in a hotel near the prison to try to avoid carrying the disease back to his family. With the outbreak at his prison now under control, he has returned home. 

“It’s pretty stressful, pretty straining on the whole family, but it’s what’s best for everyone,” he said. Michigan and Ohio have been paying for some officers to stay in hotels ― though it’s unclear how many officers were actually given that option. 

“Remember, at the end of the day, it’s the public that’s at risk because all these people are coming home,” Horn said. “Prisoners are coming home at some point, and the officers are going back and forth from the prisons into supermarkets, churches, gas stations — prison bars don’t keep germs in.” 

In a statement sent via the Michigan Corrections Union, a wife of an officer in Jackson, Michigan, said her husband has had to transport sick patients to the hospital and stand by their beds. 

He’s now isolated in the family’s basement. 

“If you ask these officers what they fear the most, it isn’t getting it, it’s bringing this virus home to their families,” she said.

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