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Local father worries for son still behind bars as staffing shortages slam MDOC

Prison bars
Posted at 7:32 AM, Jan 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-21 07:32:53-05

(WXYZ) — We’re seeing small signs of hope in Michigan’s latest COVID-19 surge, fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant. However, the virus is still taking a toll on our state prisons.

Of Michigan Department of Corrections or MDOC’s 28 facilities, 20 are under a full quarantine; several joining that list within the last week. At the same time, some facilities are so short-staffed the department is easing COVID protocols for officers to return.

10 of MDOC’s 28 prisons are facing critical staffing shortages, prompting the department to allow employees to return to work five days after testing COVID positive if they are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms that are improving, said MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz.

The 10 facilities are listed below:

  • Central Michigan Correctional in St. Louis
  • Charles E. Egeler Reception and Guidance Center near Jackson
  • Gus Harrison Correctional Facility near Adrian
  • G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility near Jackson
  • Kinross Correctional Facility near Kincheloe
  • Macomb Correctional, Lenox Township
  • Marquette Branch Prison in Marquette
  • Michigan Reformatory, Ionia
  • Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson
  • Richard Handlon Correctional, Ionia

The earlier return is not mandatory, and he said not many employees have opted to do so.

Staffing shortages within MDOC only add to Elder Yusef Qualls' concern, whose son is serving a lengthy sentence at Macomb Correctional, one of the facilities under quarantine.

Qualls said, among other things, the shortages are leading to a drop in daily services like cafeteria standards, according to regular conversations with his son.

We first met Qualls in March of 2021. At that time, he was most concerned about the B.1.1.7 variant spreading within his son’s facility. Now it’s Omicron keeping him up at night.

“It’s amazing to me that the same scenario that we met under still exists,” he told me.

That scenario, Qualls said, is laid out in calls with his son, who is also named Yusef. His son tells him exposed or infected inmates are not adequately isolated.

“He’s had consistently negative tests, but he’s currently right now in an area where there are three other people who are positive,” Qualls said of his son’s housing unit.

Gautz said more frequent testing has helped MDOC facilities identify infections quickly and take measures to isolate inmates.

On top of the courts sending fewer people to prison over the past couple of years, he said parole and programming efforts pre-COVID have led to a near 30-year low in the state’s prison population.

“Our prison population is down to levels we haven’t seen since the early 1990s. Because of that, we have an excess of 5,000 plus empty beds spread throughout our system, which enables us to spread people out more… so when we do have COVID positives pop up, we’re able to take those prisoners and put them into units that maybe we had previous closed,” Gautz said.

However, COVID fatigue Gautz said, including amongst inmates regarding social distancing, is a challenge.

“Because of all of those moves, sometimes the prisoners themselves don’t want to move. They get tired of having to be moved constantly. So that can present issues,” he said.

To help address critical staffing concerns, MDOC also started a program late last year to bring former corrections officers still working within MDOC temporarily back into that role. An officer with custody experience who got promoted, or took an office job within the department, for example.

“So rather than having current officers be continually mandated to work overtime, these former officers who work for us can suit up and go in and work that shift,” Gautz told Action News.

Omicron has been confirmed at two of MDOC’s 28 facilities; Women's Huron Valley facility and Charles E. Egeler Reception and Guidance Center in Jackson. The highly contagious variant has not been confirmed at Macomb Correctional.

Qualls has been able to video chat with his son, who is in his 40s, has been incarcerated since he was a teenager.

MDOC inmates and prison staff are tested weekly for COVID-19. Robust testing is something Gautz feels has made MDOC stand out when it comes to high infection rates.

According to the COVID Prison Project, which tracks infections, testing, and other COVID-related data for state prisons around the country, MDOC’s all-time case rate was 893 per 1,000 individuals. However, researchers with the COVID Prison Project tell Action News that number is an approximation given available data and the fluctuating populations of prisoners.

As of Thursday, Macomb Correctional had a total of 469 active COVID cases among inmates and staff.

1,419 prisoners were tested, and of those 469 active cases, 212 are inmates.

Since the start of the pandemic, MDOC reports administering more than 1.5 million COVID-19 tests.

“I think if every state was doing the level of testing and had the level of transparency that Michigan had, we wouldn’t stand out greater than any other,” he said.

Testing supplies have been steady for MDOC, and inmates are provided masks. However, Qualls said his son has at times resorted to getting his own from commissary when he feels what's available isn't sufficient or doesn't offer enough protection.

70 percent of MDOC inmates are vaccinated, according to Gautz, and so far, 10,000 booster shots have been administered.

The younger Yusef Qualls, who is fully vaccinated, is next before a parole board in mid-June, his next opportunity to come home.