DETROIT (AP) — Families of men incarcerated at Michigan's Kinross Correctional Facility believed its remote location would spare it from a deadly Covid-19 outbreak. For a while, they seemed to be right.
Kinross, built on the grounds of a former Air Force base in the Upper Peninsula, is closer to Canada than it is to Detroit. Unlike most prisons in Michigan, Kinross had remained almost unscathed by the novel coronavirus with only one case between March and October.
But on Oct. 28, corrections officials transferred nine prisoners to Kinross from Marquette Branch Prison, several hours west, where Covid-19 was running rampant. There were 837 confirmed cases by late October, 350 of which were still active when the men were transferred.
Roughly three weeks later, Kinross had its first major outbreak, corrections department data showed. Though agency officials say it's not because of the transfers, more than 1,100 prisoners have now been infected, at least seven have died and more than 100 guards have fallen ill. The prisoners who came to Kinross had been transferred twice, sent first to Marquette after a riot where they were held, and then had tested positive for Covid-19 there before leaving for Kinross, officials said.
In prisons around the country, Covid-19 outbreaks have followed transfers of prisoners or prison workers. Nearly all of the 25 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons that responded to a survey conducted by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press said they had reduced or limited the number of prisoners they moved due to the pandemic. Eight states halted the practice except in special circumstances. The reductions were keeping in line with medical guidelines.
But most of those states lifted their restrictions by September and few prison systems heeded the earlier lessons as the pandemic worsened this winter, worrying families of prisoners and correctional officers who work in the prisons.
This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic. Cary Aspinwall reported for The Marshall Project from Dallas.
The coronavirus has killed more than 300,000 people in the U.S., and cases are rising again this winter after leveling off in the late summer months. There have been more than 275,000 cases inside U.S. prisons. Prisons are a particular concern because social distancing is virtually nonexistent behind bars, prisoners sleep in close quarters and share bathrooms, and each prison has varying policies on personal protective equipment and who gets it.
Oklahoma's prisons reported relatively few cases of Covid-19 until state officials closed several units because of budget cuts, transferring more than 4,500 prisoners between facilities from late July to September. Major outbreaks followed, with more than 5,800 prisoners testing positive and at least 33 dying from the virus.
In Amarillo, Texas, officers who worked at the Neal Unit prison were proud the facility remained unscathed by the virus, but that changed in September. That's when strict protocols were loosened by the warden, including mandatory isolation of transferred prisoners, according to a longtime correction officer at the prison who had direct knowledge of the protocols but was not authorized to discuss them publicly and spoke to The Marshall Project on condition of anonymity.
The virus soon took over, infecting hundreds of prisoners and killing a chaplain and a food service manager at the prison. Jeremy Desel, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the cases were found mostly among prisoners who were asymptomatic and disputed the officer's account. "There has been no relaxing of protocols. If anything they've been tightened," Desel said.
Families of those who've died from the virus in California prisons have directly blamed transfers for the uncontrolled spread of disease, including an outbreak at San Quentin State Prison that led to 28 deaths. The family of a prisoner who died filed a notice they would sue, alleging officials ignored health officials' recommendations when they transferred high-risk prisoners from California Institute for Men in Chino, where an outbreak was already spreading. Health experts had warned of transfers between facilities, saying "mass movement of high-risk inmates between institutions is ill-advised and potentially dangerous," and would likely spread the virus between prisons, according to the notice.