As Marquette Branch Prison coronavirus outbreak grows, descriptions of inmate conditions emerge

A mother and a friend of two separate maximum security inmates contacted the TV6 & FOX UP newsroom.
Published: Oct. 15, 2020 at 5:56 PM EDT
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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - The growing coronavirus outbreak inside Marquette Branch Prison - and the way they’re hearing it’s being handled - prompted a mother and a friend of two separate maximum security inmates to contact the TV6 & FOX UP newsroom.

“He said, ‘We need help here,’” said a woman who says she talked to her friend on the phone Wednesday night, and he’s tested positive. “I believe him. He’s like, ‘I know I’m in prison, but at the end of the day, I haven’t taken a shower in two weeks. I don’t have any proper PPE. I’m not wiping my bed down. I’m sick. I still have a temperature. They’re just giving me Tylenol.’”

Meantime, a mother says her son called Tuesday and said he’s negative, but she’s afraid that won’t last.

“It’s basically a petri dish,” she said. “It’ll just keep happening over and over again if they’re keeping people who have tested positive with people who are negative. And then they’re going to get it, and they’re going to keep on getting it.”

TV6 & FOX UP are not identifying the people in this story by name because of potential repercussions on the inmates.

The Michigan Department of Corrections says the outbreak is on the maximum security side of the prison. As of Thursday evening, MDOC data shows 182 inmates and 85 staff members at the prison have now tested positive. That’s the most staff cases of any state prison facility. The MDOC says 41 new staff cases were reported late Wednesday, and six more were added Thursday.

MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said in an email Monday that while ongoing job vacancies remain, staff not following masking and social distance rules was causing the bigger problem at Marquette Branch Prison. He says staff has become more compliant.

“Right now the situation is serious there at Marquette in terms of the staffing,” Gautz said. “About a third of the staff are not able to be at work right now.”

Gautz says maximum security inmates are in individual cells.

“They’ve all been issued multiple masks," he said. "They should have at least six of them on hand.”

Gautz explained showers are available four days a week with prisoners divided into cohorts based on their coronavirus status.

“Everyone has access to the showers there, so if someone’s not showering, it’s their choice," he said.

Byron Osborn, the president of the corrections officers' union, said he is not aware of any prisoner not being provided access to health care.

The two women sounding the alarm about conditions want to hear about improvements when their next phone call comes.

“All I know is that he’s not being treated right. And I know it’s multiple inmates that are not being treated right,” said the friend of an inmate.

“I would like to see the inmates who need medical attention and quarantining to be quarantined, away from people who are otherwise healthy,” said the mother of another inmate.

To help with staffing, the MDOC says it’s called in 14 emergency response team members. Osborn affirmed that move in an email Thursday.

“Staffing levels have obviously been impacted and the MDOC is working hard to make temporary adjustments to facility operations, including bringing in additional staff from other facilities,” Osborn said.

Gautz says he should be able to announce in the coming days how the burden will be eased on remaining staff at Marquette.

“We have some other actions that we’re doing that for security reasons we can’t talk about right now,” he said.

On Monday, Osborn blamed the outbreak on transfers from Chippewa Correctional Facility after last month’s riot. MDOC says Marquette Branch Prison received about 100 prisoners from Chippewa, and all of those inmates tested negative upon arriving in Marquette.

MDOC says prisoners didn’t start testing positive for at least 14 days after that. Staff began testing positive the second week of September – before the incident at Chippewa – and have continued to test positive since.

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